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No. 1 factor in selecting wireless service? Network coverage

CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why even the nation's most "reliable network" isn't worth much if the network coverage is lacking. And she explains why a Verizon iPhone 5 won't work on any other 4G LTE network.

Ask Maggie

You can buy the coolest and most advanced smartphone out there. But if you can't get a wireless signal, it's not worth much to you.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a reader about picking a wireless service provider based on which one offers the best coverage. I also explain to another reader why, even though the Verizon iPhone 5 is unlocked, it won't work on any other 4G LTE networks.

Coverage, coverage, coverage

Dear Maggie,
I've loved my iPhone ever since I got it in June last year, and absolutely loved Verizon Wireless, because there was service everywhere, however when I started school a few months ago I've noticed that I get no service whatsoever on the entire school campus. I get one bar of service on the phone, but it means nothing because I can't even make a call. As soon as I leave school I get full service for the most part but with Verizon saying that I can't keep my unlimited data anymore and now the fact that I get no service at school makes me wonder, if I should stay with Verizon.

No service at school is not all that big of a deal except the fact that if I lose my phone or get it stolen Find My iPhone is useless. Plus, Sprint and AT&T both get full bars all over school. Sprint gets decent service at my house.

So now, I'm stuck on what I should do. I value your opinion because when my upgrade comes in a few months I can either stay with Verizon and get the iPhone 5 on a tiered data plan, or I could switch to Sprint and get an iPhone 5. AT&T won't really work for me since the coverage at my house isn't very good. The other question I have is whether Verizon's service might improve when I get the iPhone 5 since it can get LTE. I know that LTE makes the service faster, but does it also improve coverage?


Dear Brandon,
I think that network coverage is the most important factor to consider when you are shopping for a wireless service provider. If you can't make calls or access the data network at all, then what's the point of having a smartphone? It sounds like from what you have described that you aren't getting adequate coverage when you are at school. Since I'm guessing you spend a big chunk of your day at school, it makes little sense for you to keep Verizon as a service provider.

Also, it sounds like you want to upgrade your phone and you aren't willing to pay full price for that new device. This means that you will have to give up your old unlimited data plan anyway if you want to get a subsidized price on your new iPhone 5.

The way you have described your coverage issues, my guess is that Verizon might have a "dead spot" around your school. While LTE might improve coverage slightly, I don't think it will be enough to solve your problem.

Here's why: Verizon is deploying its 4G LTE network in places where it already has 3G coverage. So this means that if you are in a spot that doesn't have great 3G coverage, it's not likely to improve that much with 4G LTE. That said, the 700 MHz spectrum that Verizon is using to deliver this service does transmit signals over longer distances, so in theory coverage might be improved a little bit. But even if coverage got a little bit better, it would only help you with data. Verizon subscribers with 4G LTE phones still use the company's 3G voice network for calls. And since you said, you aren't able to make phone calls at school, I don't think this situation would change for you if you got the iPhone 5.

So what should you do? If Sprint offers you the best coverage at home and at school, which is where you spend most of your time, then it sounds like Sprint is the best provider for you. AT&T may have good coverage at school, but if it stinks at home where you live, then you are right back in the same situation you are in now.

The only other question for you is whether Sprint is or will soon offer 4G LTE in your area. Sprint began rolling out its 4G LTE network in July with 15 cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and San Antonio. The company recently added 22 additional cities and said it plans to be in 100 markets.

Since I don't know where you live, it's hard to say whether Sprint's 4G LTE will be available to you. But if it is, then that's a big bonus for you. If Sprint doesn't offer 4G LTE in your area, you should still go with Sprint since even 3G coverage is better than no coverage, which is what you'd be getting for a big portion of your day with Verizon.

Remember that the contract you sign for your new iPhone 5 will be a two-year commitment. After that, you are free to once again switch providers without penalty. If you plan to relocate when you're done school, you may want to switch providers again. Also, keep in mind that a lot can change in two years. For example, in the fall of 2010 Verizon was just getting ready to deploy to its first LTE markets. And now the carrier has service in more than 400 markets.

Things will likely change over the next few years as carriers like AT&T acquire additional spectrum and Sprint gets more investment from its Japanese partner SoftBank. Last month, SoftBank said it would spend $12.1 billion to buy a controlling stake in Sprint and it would spend an additional $8 billion in investment into the company.

The bottomline for you is to get the service that best meets your needs today. And when your contract expires in two years, you can re-evaluate which carrier you want to use then.

I hope this advice was helpful and good luck.

What an unlocked iPhone 5 really means

Dear Maggie,
I recently bought a new iPhone 5 from Verizon Wireless. But now I realize that the monthly contract price is too high. I can't afford it in this economy.

My original plan was to cancel the contract and keep the phone to use with a different provider. I think I can do this since the GSM portion of the Verizon iPhone 5 is unlocked. But now I have to leave the U.S. and travel back to Europe. Since my phone is less than 60 days old, Verizon will not unlock it. I guess I can still use any 2G/3G network in Europe, correct? But would I be able to use the 4G LTE network of a European network that uses the same bands as Verizon? Or since my phone is locked does this mean that my 4G LTE bands are locked for forever to Verizon?

Thanks for your time and patience.


Dear N,
The Verizon iPhone 5 is unlocked for all GSM carriers. So that means you can use it in Europe on a GSM carrier just like you can use it in the U.S. on a GSM carrier. But you will not be able to use any other 4G LTE services with this phone. This is not because the device is locked to Verizon per se, but because Verizon uses a different spectrum band for its LTE devices.

Verizon uses the 700 MHz C block spectrum for its LTE service. Verizon has a nationwide license for this spectrum and is the only carrier in the world deploying a 4G LTE network using this spectrum band. So unfortunately, this means that your iPhone 5 will not be able to connect to any other LTE network in the U.S. or abroad, since there are no other carriers using this frequency.

What this means for you is that you can use the iPhone 5 on other GSM carriers in the U.S. and you can use it on any European GSM carrier. But the data service will run over a 3G network and not a 4G LTE network. In Europe this isn't such a big deal, considering most European carriers haven't deployed 4G LTE yet.

But I do want to caution you before you cancel your Verizon Wireless service. Verizon only gives customers 14 days to return a device or cancel service. Beyond that timeframe, you will be expected to pay a $350 early termination fee.

Here is Verizon's policy:

You may terminate service for any reason within 14 days of activation. If you purchased a wireless device at a promotional price at the time of activation, you must return it within the device return period to avoid being assessed an Early Termination Fee of $175, or $350 if you purchased an Advanced Device. You will remain responsible for your Activation Fee unless you terminate service within three days of activation. You will also be responsible for all applicable usage fees, prorated access charges, taxes, surcharges or other charges that accrued to your account through the termination date. If you paid a security deposit, it may take between 30 and 60 days to process the return of your security deposit. The charges for any service used on the account before the service termination date may be applied against your security deposit. If you cancel your service after the 14-day period, but prior to the expiration of your minimum term, you will be responsible for all of the above-mentioned charges, including an Early Termination Fee.

I would check out the cost of a new service before you decide to terminate your service with Verizon. You may find that it won't be cost effective for you to cancel the service and use the new iPhone 5 on a different carrier's network even though Verizon's iPhone 5 is unlocked for GSM carriers out of the box.

Good luck. And thanks for your question.

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.