Want a new iPhone? Which carrier should you choose?

This edition of Ask Maggie covers how to select the best carrier for the iPhone 4S as well as which carrier might be best for an expected LTE-version of the iPhone.

iPhone fanboys and girls in the U.S. have more choices than ever when it comes to picking a carrier. So which one offers the best service and the best deal?

Apple's iPhone is now available on three of the four biggest U.S. wireless carriers. And it's also available on a handful of regional carrier networks. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a T-Mobile subscriber looking to jump ship for a carrier with the iPhone. I also give some good news to a mom, who is hoping Verizon Wireless will finally introduce a family data plan.

Picking a wireless provider for the iPhone

Dear Maggie,
I was just wondering what your opinion is regarding rumors of the new iPhone coming out. Currently, I am on the last month of my contract with T-Mobile and I really am looking to get the iPhone. I have had it with my Android experiences. The phones are just too buggy.

My question is should I switch contracts now and get the iPhone 4S or wait it out to see when the new iPhone will be announced? Also which would be the best carrier to go to for either the iPhone 4S or the new iPhone?

Thank you,
Nick

Dear Nick,
To answer your first question, you might want to wait a little while. A new iPhone may be announced in June. It's already the middle of April, so that's only about two months away. And if your current phone isn't broken, I think you should hold onto it a little longer.

Of course, there's also a chance that the new iPhone may not be available until the fall. If June comes and goes without a new iPhone, and you can't stand your Android phone anymore, then go ahead and get the iPhone 4S. In any case, it's probably worth your while to wait just a little bit longer until we get a better feel for when Apple's next release may come.

When it comes time to buy your iPhone, the good news is that you and millions of other U.S. iPhone customers now have more choices than ever. Three of the big four national wireless carriers offer the iPhone: AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless. (Unfortunately for you, as you're well aware, T-Mobile does not offer the iPhone and may be left out of the next version of the device, too.)

There is also a growing list of regional wireless operators also offering the iPhone. Starting today Alaska Communications, Appalachian Wireless, Cellcom, and nTelos are all selling the iPhone for their networks. And these carriers show the phone selling for $50 less than the price tag offered by the three nationwide carriers. A fifth carrier -- GCL, according to 9to5Mac -- is also selling the iPhone, but no information could be found on this provider.

The bad news is that even though it's the same exact phone on each carrier, you will be locked into a specific carrier for that device. Even if you want to break your two-year contract and go to another carrier, your iPhone will be locked to a specific carrier. In other words, you can't buy an iPhone on AT&T and then expect to use it later on Verizon Wireless.

So which carrier is right for you? The answer depends on several factors. Do you want an iPhone 4S or the next iPhone, which is likely to have new 4G LTE network technology? Which carrier offers the best service where you live? Do you favor faster speeds over lower cost?

For the purposes of this discussion I will look mainly at the three main nationwide wireless operators. But if you live in a region where any of these other five smaller operators is present, you may want to check out their service since they may offer you a less expensive service and a bigger discount on the iPhone itself. First, let's talk about the basics.

The first thing you should always consider when choosing a wireless carrier is network quality and coverage. You want to be able to get a signal to make a call or get access to the Internet where you live and work. The next thing to consider is the cost of the plan. The big difference here is not so much in the cost of your monthly but how much you get for that price. For example, Sprint offers unlimited data while its competitors offer tiered data plans.

And the last thing to think about is whether you can browse the Web or use Net-based apps while you are talking on your iPhone. AT&T's GSM network allows this, but Verizon and Sprint, which are CDMA carriers, do not. There is one caveat to this. You can browse the Web and talk at the same time on a CDMA carrier device if you are in a Wi-Fi hot spot. And if the new iPhone supports 4G LTE, then this point will also be moot, since LTE devices on CDMA carriers allow for simultaneous voice and data activity. Personally, I don't think this is a big deal. Usually when I'm on a call, I'm talking or listening and not surfing the Web or using any other Net-based apps. But maybe I'm just not multitasking enough.

Now that you know what things to look for, let's compare the big three nationwide carriers.

AT&T iPhone 4S

Pros: AT&T's 3G network is speedier than Verizon's and Sprint's networks. The iPhone supports a faster version of AT&T's 3G technology called HSPA+. (AT&T calls this upgrade 4G, but it's actually much slower than LTE and other forms of HSPA+ used by carriers like T-Mobile.) The version supported in the iPhone 4S is HSPA+ 14.4 Mbps, which means it theoretically downloads data at 14.4 Mbps. This is much faster than Verizon's and Sprint's 3G EV-DO Rev. A technology, which downloads data at a theoretical speed of 3.2 Mbps.

Cons: AT&T is notorious for dropped calls. Even though the company' network has improved in some areas, AT&T has struggled to keep up with network demand particularly in dense cities, such as New York City and San Francisco.

What's more, the 3G speed advantage may not mean as much if you wait for the next iPhone, which is expected to have 4G LTE built into it. AT&T's 4G LTE network, which launched in September 2011, currently only covers 32 markets. AT&T has said it expects to be complete the network by the end of 2013. Then customers can expect the same coverage they have with 3G.

Pricing:

  • 450 minutes of talk time: $40
  • Unlimited texting: $20
  • 300MB of data: $20
  • 3GB of data: $30
  • 5GB of data with mobile hot spot: $50

Verizon iPhone 4S

Pros: Verizon has the best reputation when it comes to network coverage and reliability. Unlike AT&T, which has had some severe growing pains due to the iPhone, Verizon has proven that it's up to the task of handling data from the iPhone as well as a slew of other Google Android devices.

If the new iPhone has LTE, Verizon is likely to be the star carrier given its broad LTE network. As of April 19, Verizon's 4G LTE network covers 230 markets and roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population. By the end of 2012, Verizon says it will cover 260 million people across 400 markets.

Cons: If you get the iPhone 4S or the new iPhone with LTE, when you don't have access to the 4G LTE network, you will be on a substantially slower network than if you were on AT&T's network. Verizon's prices don't differ much from AT&T, but in general consumers get less with Verizon's plans than they do with either AT&T or Sprint.

Pricing:

  • 450 voice minutes: $40
  • Unlimited texting: $20
  • 2GB of data: $30
  • 5GB of data: $50
  • 4GB of data with mobile hot spot: $50
  • 10GB of data: $80

Sprint iPhone 4S

Pros: The biggest benefit of Sprint is that it's the only major U.S. operator with the iPhone still offering unlimited data. This means that Sprint is likely the most affordable option for those who plan to use a lot of data.

Cons: Sprint's 3G network is slow by comparison to AT&T. And the company is much further behind in its rollout of 4G LTE than its two main competitors. This means that when the new iPhone is released with LTE, Sprint will have the smallest footprint. Sprint says it will cover 123 million people by the end of this year with its LTE network. And it will cover 250 million by the end of 2013.

Pricing:

450 voice minutes with unlimited texting and data: $70 (Plus an additional $10 charge since the plan is associated with a smartphone.)

The bottom line

If you plan on getting the iPhone 4S, AT&T may offer you the best option with faster speeds and more bang for your buck in terms of data than Verizon offers. If you have decent coverage where you live, AT&T will offer you the fastest network speeds and you will get more data for the same amount of money than you would with Verizon. For example, a $30 a month on AT&T gives you an additional 1GB of data. And if you want the Wi-Fi hot spot option, you get an additional 1GB of data per month for the same $50 price as Verizon.

If network speeds aren't that important to you, and you get decent service with Sprint, that's likely to be your most affordable option.

But if you wait for the next the iPhone. And if that next iPhone has LTE, then I'd say Verizon is the best carrier, since you will likely get better 4G LTE coverage from Verizon. Still, the pricing for Verizon is higher than its competitors. But it in general, you get a better network. So if you are willing to pay more, you'll likely get a better experience.

I hope that advice was helpful. Good luck!

When is family data plan coming to Verizon Wireless?

Dear Maggie,
My teenage son is begging me to let him have my old iPhone. But I don't want to pay an additional $30 a month for his data plan. I actually don't use my own $30 a month data plan that much. Anyway, we are on Verizon Wireless family plan. Do you know if Verizon will be introducing a new family plan that includes data?

Thanks,
Debra

Dear Debra,
You are in luck. Verizon Wireless is currently working out the details of a new family plan for data usage. During the company's conference call on Thursday, Verizon's CFO Fran Shammo said the company would be rolling out the new plan this summer.

Verizon is still keeping the details of the plans under wraps, but the general gist is that it would work like your family plan for voice or text messaging. You would be given a bucket of data usage for the month, and it would be shared among the various members of your family plan. For families like yours where one person doesn't use much data, it could be a real cost savings.

But you'll have to be careful about monitoring usage. If your son starts downloading lots of HD video or streaming other media like audio etc. you could exceed your cap and be socked with even higher bills than you are paying now.

If you thought keeping track of voice minutes was tough, monitoring data could be even harder. At least with voice, you have a general sense of how long you've been talking on the phone. You also know generally about how many text messages you have sent. But with data it's hard to know how many megabytes it is to download a movie or upload a picture to Facebook. And sometimes apps that are running in the background on a phone can also eat up data usage. So at this point it's hard to say whether the family will really be any cheaper for some families that consume a lot of data.

Once Verizon announces its family plan, we will know more. I'll be sure to analyze the options here in Ask Maggie. So stay tuned!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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