Quick guide to cell phone carriers

Confused on how to choose the best cell phone carrier for you? Let CNET walk you through the process with tips and points to consider.

Selecting a wireless carrier is just as important as picking a phone. The provider, after all, delivers the network that makes your handset work. And since you'll probably end up paying a healthy amount for that privilege, there's no point in sticking with a bad user experience.

Fortunately, CNET is here to help guide you through the decision process. Read on for the major factors that you should consider when choosing a carrier, followed by brief descriptions of each of the major players that CNET reviews. Also, be sure to consult CNET's cell phone buying guide if you need help buying a phone.

Five rules when choosing a carrier


1) Coverage is key
You can't do much on your phone without a signal, so make sure that you can get coverage in the places that you'll need it. That means looking beyond carrier slogans and coverage maps (though the latter is a good place to start) and doing your own research.

The best way to gauge coverage in your area is to ask your neighbors. See which carrier they use, and ask if they're satisfied. You even can borrow a friend's phone and use it at home and in your workplace to see if you'll get the reception that you need. Sure, it's a very unscientific method, but personal experience is really the best tool.

Just remember that no carrier network is perfect. Gaps exist, even in urban areas, and reception can vary by your precise location. For example, a carrier's signal may not penetrate deep into buildings and underground, and it will vary according to how many people are using a network at a given time (think about how hard it is to get a signal at a big public event).

Another point to consider is whether a carrier uses GSM or CDMA. GSM (think T-Mobile and AT&T) is the dominant global technology and is used in almost every country around the world. So if you're a globe-trotter and want to take your phone on your travels, make sure it supports GSM. Though strong in North America, CDMA (think Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and most smaller carriers) is present in only a handful of countries outside of the United States. If your phone is CDMA-only, your international coverage will be limited. Fortunately, handsets that support both technologies are widely available. GSM phones also are easier to unlock, meaning that you can take them to another carrier as long as your chosen device supports the necessary cellular bands.

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2) Data speeds
Of course, making calls is just one thing that you'll do on your phone. And if you're like a lot of smartphone owners, it may be the last thing. That's why you also need to carefully evaluate data networks. Data networks enable your handset to access the Internet, send e-mails, stream music and video, and download the apps that have become so popular.

Most U.S. carriers in the United States are now locked in an always-evolving race to build the largest and fastest 4G LTE data network. So just like with a provider's voice network, data coverage and strength will vary widely by area. If you want LTE (and really, why wouldn't you?), know where the carrier has 4G coverage and how fast it is. And just like with calls, make sure you've tried a carrier's data network before committing.

3) Plans
After coverage, your service plan is the most central component of your carrier experience. It dictates how long you have to stay with a carrier, how many calling minutes and how much data you'll get, and the price that you'll pay each month. Prices will largely depend on how many calling minutes and the amount of data that you expect to use. Be sure to get what you need, but don't overspend, either. And remember that monthly taxes and fees will add more dollars to your final bill.

Plans that require a contract are still the dominant service model, but that's beginning to change. Prepaid carriers like Cricket continue to expand and T-Mobile ditched contracts completely in April 2013. Signing a contract entitles you to a heavy discount on a phone up front, though the trade-off is that you'll continue to pay for the device through the life of your agreement (and even after). With a prepaid plan, you'll have to pay full price for a handset at the time of purchase, but you'll be able to end service with the carrier any time you'd like. As you'll see in a moment, T-Mobile has adopted a somewhat hybrid of the two concepts. Here again, just think carefully about what's right for you.

Pay equal attention to the plan's terms. Though carriers now offer unlimited calling, some providers still have plans that limit the number of minutes that you can use during weekdays (often called "anytime minutes"). Minutes for nights and weekends, on the other hand, are always unlimited. Messaging brings its own charges so be sure to explore your options. You're better off buying a message bundle or paying for unlimited messaging than paying for each message that you send.

Data plan types also vary widely. Some deliver unlimited data while others restrict you to a certain amount for each month (what we call tiered plans). Once you go over your set data amount, you'll have to pay big fees. Alternatively, if you're getting service for a family or group of friends, shared plans will pool voice and data use across multiple devices. Note also that some carriers charge extra if you want to enjoy 4G speeds.

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4) Your phone
If your heart is set on a particular phone that's available with only one carrier, then you may have skipped the previous points entirely. But if you've yet to decide which handset you should buy (again, see CNET's cell phone buying guide for more help with that process), don't assume that each carrier's device lineup is the same. Selection varies widely, so it pays to think about which kind of phone you'd like and which carrier(s) offer it.

Up until recently, contract-based carriers strictly limited how often you could buy a new phone with the subsidized price, even if you extended your contract. But over the last few weeks, the largest providers (following T-Mobile's lead) have introduced early-upgrade plans that have changed the roles. Terms will vary as I'll explain below, and they're not the same value by any measure. Maggie Reardon has an excellent comparison of the different upgrade plans here .

A welcome trend over the last year is that popular devices like the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S4 now land at multiple providers. That may help make your decisions easier, but keep in mind that even on these common phones you can have a vastly different customer experience depending on your carrier choice.

5) Customer service
Unfortunately, there's no way to predict this. For everyone who has a horror story with a provider, there probably are almost as many people who have had no problem. Also, though consumer studies singing the praises of different carriers continue to get headlines, there are no guarantees. So all you can do is make your choice, hope for the best, and be your own advocate if you aren't pleased.

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Carrier basics

Verizon Wireless

The biggest wireless carrier in United States, Verizon Wireless operates a robust and far-reaching 4G LTE network and a strong lineup of smartphones, feature phones, and basic handsets. A joint venture between Verizon Communications and Vodafone, Verizon Wireless was formed in 2000 through a merger between GTE Wireless and Bell Atlantic.

Things you should know about Verizon Wireless:

  • Verizon requires a "Share Everything" plan that includes unlimited and text and voice calls for multiple devices plus a monthly allotment of data use. The monthly price increases based on the number and type of devices you add to the plan and the amount of data that you elect to use.
  • As a CDMA carrier, Verizon's international coverage is limited to a handful of countries, but it offers dual-mode CDMA/GSM handsets.
  • Verizon offers prepaid plans.
  • Verizon announced Edge, its early upgrade program, in July 2013. You buy a new phone without a down payment, but you're on the hook for 24 monthly payments before the handset is really yours. Also, Verizon limits you to one upgrade every six months and you have paid off 50 percent of the price of your handset before you can trade it in for a new device.

AT&T

AT&T is the second-largest wireless carrier in the United States after Verizon Wireless, at least for now. Today, AT&T has an extensive lineup of GSM devices, and it continues to grow its 4G LTE network. The current company came to be in 2007 when Cingular Wireless, which acquired the original AT&T Wireless in 2004, changed its name to AT&T.

Things you should know about AT&T:

  • Like Verizon, AT&T has shared plans with data tiers for smartphones customers, but customers can stick with an individual plan if they prefer.
  • As a GSM carrier, AT&T offers extensive international roaming.
  • AT&T offers prepaid and family plans through its Go service. Also, on May 9, 2013, it launched a new prepaid brand called Aio. In addition to not requiring contracts, Aio allows customers to pay for a phone up front in installments. Alternatively, customers can bring a compatible unlocked phone.
  • AT&T Next allows customers to upgrade once every 12 months. There's no option for a down payment and you'll pay off your handset over the course of 20 months (to determine a monthly payment, AT&T divides its total cost by 20). When your year is up you can trade in your phone and start the process again. On the other hand, you must pay off your phone completely if you leave AT&T before your finished making those 20 payments.

Sprint

Though its merger with Nextel occurred way back in 2005, Sprint finally is phasing out the defunct carrier's iDEN network while retaining push-to-talk service. Sprint was the first carrier to offer a 4G network through WiMax technology, but it is now transitioning to LTE. As such, its 4G coverage is far behind that of AT&T and Verizon for the time being. Sprint carrier offers handsets of all stripes, including a few handsets with rugged designs.

Things you should know about Sprint:

  • Sprint continues to offer unlimited calling and data plans. On July 11, 2013, the carrier unveiled its Unlimited Guarantee, which promises that the monthly price of your service plan will not change for the life of your line of service.
  • Its international CDMA coverage has a smaller footprint than GSM, but Sprint has dual-mode CDMA/GSM handsets.
  • Sprint has family and prepaid plans. Prepaid service also is available through its Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile subsidiaries.


Popular flagship smartphones like the iPhone (left) and the Samsung Galaxy S3 are now available across multiple carriers. Sarah Tew/CNET

T-Mobile

After narrowly escaping a merger with AT&T in 2012, T-Mobile remains the smallest of the big four U.S. carriers. It now operates an LTE network and continues to operate an HSPA+ "Faux G" network that offers LTE-comparable speeds. T-Mobile was the last major carrier to sell the iPhone and it was an early leader in Android. Compared with the other major carriers, its home network is less prevalent in rural areas.

Things you should know about T-Mobile:

  • In March 2013, T-Mobile changed its service plan model . Most importantly, it did away with contracts completely, which means that you can end your service at any time. Customers get unlimited voice and text messaging service, and on top of that can choose from a variety of data packages. Though total data use is unlimited, T-Mobile prices its plans by how much 4G data you can use each month. Also, T-Mobile no longer offer subsidies for its phones. You can either pay full price for the phone up front or you can "finance" your handset by paying monthly installments for two years.
  • As a GSM carrier and a subsidiary of Germany's Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile has extensive international roaming.
  • T-Mobile carrier offers no-contract family plans .
  • T-Mobile kicked off the early upgrade trend by announcing Jump on July 10, 2013. Available only for customers who are paying off their handset in installments (so if you paid full price, you're out of luck), Jump requires an extra fee of $10 per month, which also works as an insurance policy. You'll buy your device in 24 monthly payments, but, unlike AT&T and Verizon, you start with a down payment. After you're in the Jump program for six months, you're eligible for their first trade-in. You'll have to make another down payment on your new handset, but the process starts again at that point. Note, however, that you can upgrade no more than twice in a 12-month period.
For a detailed comparison of early upgrade plans and an analysis of which carrier offers the best deal, see t his edition of Ask Maggie

U.S. Cellular

Based in Chicago, U.S. Cellular is a regional carrier serving 26 states in the Midwest, the Southeast, and the Northwest. Its smartphone lineup is a bit smaller than the Big Four providers and largely sticks to Android models including Galaxy S4. It launched its LTE network in 2012, though coverage is limited to larger urban areas. Unique among carriers, U.S. Cellular offers rewards points that long-term customers can redeem for new phones, accessories, and downloadable content.

Things you should know about U.S. Cellular:

  • You can opt for contract-based, prepaid, or family plans. U.S. Cellular has unlimited calling, but data comes in tiered packages.
  • As a CDMA carrier, international coverage is limited.
  • U.S. Cellular's home network isn't nationwide, but it has roaming agreements with several partners for nationwide service.

MetroPCS

On May 1, 2013, T-Mobile and MetroPCS completed a planned merger. Though the two carriers are now operating as one company, the brands and services will remain distinct for the time being.

Serving customers in select markets in 15 states, MetroPCS is a completely prepaid carrier. Though its handset roster tends toward no-frills models, it has plenty of Android smartphones and touch-screen handsets including the Galaxy S3. MetroPCS has a growing 4G LTE network, but coverage and speeds aren't as robust as they are at the major carriers.

Things you should know about MetroPCS:

  • As a CDMA carrier, international coverage is limited.
  • Most plans include unlimited talk, text, and Web browsing.
  • MetroPCS' home network isn't nationwide, but it has roaming agreements with several carrier partners for nationwide service.


Prepaid carriers skew mostly toward low-end and midrange handsets like the LG Motion 4G. Sarah Tew/CNET

Cricket

A subsidiary of Leap Wireless International founded in 1999, Cricket serves select communities in 35 states and does not require contracts. It operates a growing LTE network, but outside of the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4, its handset lineup trends toward basic and midrange models. Cricket's Muve Music plan, launched in January 2011, gives customers unlimited music downloads and playbacks in addition to talk, text, and Internet.

Things you should know about Cricket:

  • As a CDMA carrier, international coverage is limited.
  • Cricket offers unlimited plans for talk, text, and data.
  • You'll be using another carrier's network when roaming outside Cricket's home network area.

Virgin Mobile

For the most part, Virgin Mobile aims its prepaid service at the youth market. In February 2013, Virgin started using Sprint's LTE network while keeping older devices on Sprint's dwindling WiMax network. As for devices, it has a few smartphones, including Android models and the iPhone 5. First launched in 2001, Virgin Mobile is now fully owned by Sprint.

Things you should know about Virgin Mobile:

  • As a CDMA carrier, international coverage is limited.
  • The "Beyond Talk" monthly plans bring unlimited data and messaging, and you can opt for unlimited calling as well. The "PayLo" plans are cheaper, but you get fewer calling minutes and tiered data.
  • Virgin devices operate on Sprint's network.

Boost

Like Virgin, Boost Mobile is wholly owned by Sprint and is geared toward budget-minded consumers. Boost does not require contracts, and its Shrinkage Plan offers reduced monthly rates over time. It carries mostly midrange Android models and a variety of basic phones. As for 4G, its older phones run on Sprint's WiMax network, but newer models use Sprint LTE. Originally launched in New Zealand and Australia in 2001, Boost USA launched in 2003.

Things you should know about Boost Mobile:

  • Boost handsets operate on Sprint network.
  • Boost offers a monthly plan with unlimited voice calls, text, and Web browsing. You also can pay for voice calling by the day or by the minute.
  • As a CDMA carrier, international coverage is limited.
Read the full CNET Review

Samsung Galaxy S4

The Bottom Line: Its laundry list of features require time and effort to truly master, but the Galaxy S4 is the top choice for anyone looking for a big-screen, do-everything smartphone. / Read full review

Read the full CNET Review

Apple iPhone 5

The Bottom Line: The iPhone 5 completely rebuilds the iPhone on a framework of new features and design, addressing its major previous shortcomings. It's absolutely the best iPhone to date, and it easily secures its place in the top tier of the smartphone universe. / Read full review

About the author

Senior Managing Editor Kent German leads the CNET Reviews and Download editors in San Francisco. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he still writes about the wireless industry and occasionally his passion for commercial aviation.

 

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