How To Pick the Best Wireless Carrier for the iPhone 5 (or Any Smartphone)

It's everyone's favorite (or least favorite) time of year again. The time when a new iPhone is announced and everyone either goes gaga or ho-hum on the specs and changes — there's never a shortage of opinion. This however, is also a great time of year to evaluate your service provider for an iPhone 5 or any new smartphone purchase. Should you stick with the same network you've been using? Or jump ship to another? I'll detail the main points you should consider.The Network:
This is a big decision, and to ensure that you are getting the most from your phone (the iPhone 5 now supports LTE) you need to understand the network coverage in your area. Go to OpenSignalMaps and type your address or zip code to see what services rank best in your area. Note the highest data speeds, and I'll explain those next.

Now that you have a handle on what data rates are available to you, what does it all mean?

In general, LTE networks are the fastest offering real world speeds of 5-12MB per second (MBps) download rates. This means loading a webpage, downloading attachments on email, and finding a location using maps data should all be quick with minimal lag.

Next in line is WiMAX, HSPA, and EV-DO. They offer real world download speeds in range of 2-6MB per second (MBps), and if you currently have an iPhone it's likely what you are using now. Is that fast enough for your use?

Summary:
If you travel a lot and want the fastest data, Verizon may be a good option with the wide coverage of its LTE network. However, if you stay local then what really matters is the coverage near you and how important having the fastest data networks are. OpenSignalMaps should give you a good idea of what's best in your area.

The Pricing:
The next big question is how much is all this data going to cost? Sprint seems to have the best overall plan in terms of value, and also is the only carrier still offering unlimited data. Early iPhone adopters on AT&T can still be grandfathered into unlimited plans, Verizon customers will have to pay full retail price on new iPhone 5's to keep that privilege.

Otherwise, AT&T and Verizon customers will be paying for data in 2GB Chunks. Typically 2GB is enough for average to moderate users with home wifi. Do you know what data plan you have now? Do you frequently have overage charges?

Here's some average pricing plans to give you a start, but check the carrier website for specifics to your needs...

  • AT&T: Average price - $99.99/month (450 minutes, unlimited messaging, 2GB data)
  • Verizon: Average price - $100.00/month (unlimited minutes, unlimited messaging, 2GB data)
  • Sprint: Average price - $79.99/month (450 minutes, unlimited messaging, unlimited data)
  • T-Mobile: Average price - $89.99/month (unlimited minutes, messaging and data)

Summary:
Sprint seems to offer a clear advantage in terms of value. True unlimited data for smartphones, and a reasonable cost. This advantage can be downplayed a bit if you are a light data user (2GB or less per month), but there is a sense of freedom in knowing you have no limit.

Customer service:
This factor is all too often overlooked. In the event you do have to deal with technical support or some billing issue, you want that experience to be pleasant.

Here's a recent chart of service rankings from JD Power & Associates....

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The results are surprisingly convincing that Verizon is far and away the leader in this category. Want to do more legwork on this? Call the customer service departments and ask them some of the questions I posed here (what's the data plan going to cost? what data rates are available?). You can also research this online by going to the carrier's webpage and seeing how easy it is to use. Who had the best customer service? least phone wait time? most helpful website? That can help you decide how to rank customer service in your area.

Summary:
Don't overlook customer service and user-friendly carrier websites. You'll likely have to use them more than a handful of times through the life of your contract, so it pays to make sure that the carrier is providing a valuable customer service as well. You sure are paying them enough for it.

Everything Else:
If you've looked through these areas and made it this far, you've done a bulk of the work and probably have a good sense of which carrier is best for you. If it's close between two carriers, now is the time to consider the little things. Here's a few of note.

  • Verizon:Mobile tethering offered free with shared data plan. This lets you setup the iPhone like a hotspot so you can use it for data for a laptop when wifi isn't available.
  • AT&T: A GSM carrier (and the only one for iPhone). GSM is known to experience longer batter life compared to CDMA equivalents due to the antenna technology (Verizon and Sprint use CDMA standards). GSM also supports simultaneous voice and data, CDMA only will support this if you're in an area that supports LTE.
  • Sprint: Only iPhone carrier still offering unlimited data with no throttling for new customers.
  • T-Mobile: Another GSM carrier, and they have recently announced an unlimited data with no throttling data option. They don't formally sell the iPhone through retail but welcome unlocked iPhones on their network

Which area do you live in? What network did you choose and why?

(Images: 1. Apple, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, 2. OpenSignalMaps 3. JD Power)

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