In recent years, competition has heated up among the “big four” wireless providers serving customers in the United States. An industry that was once dominated by two major players and two minor players has become truly competitive on price, coverage, and reliability. Though the four major carriers have never been so close in terms of their overall competitiveness, three players do stand out as the best choices for data, price, and overall quality. Each carrier has different strengths, however, and will appeal to a different type of customer.
Best Data Plans: T-Mobile
When it comes to data plans, it’s hard to beat what T-Mobile has to offer. The company is one of only two carriers to offer no-strings-attached unlimited LTE data. Better yet, the company offers unlimited data to family plans as well as individual lines. In addition to its unlimited offering, T-Mobile offers 2GB, 6GB, and 10GB data plans on a per-line basis. This means there’s no need to share data, police heavy usage on a particular line, or start a family fight because someone is acting like a “data hog.” Though the company’s data plans are its major selling point, there are also some other perks that you should be aware of:
- Unlimited 2G data internationally, with LTE data available at no additional charge in Canada and Mexico.
- Unused data rolls over to the next month with a 12-month expiration.
- Streaming music and video services do not count against data allotments.
- Switching costs, including early termination fees and device payments, are paid when you switch to T-Mobile.
These additional perks make T-Mobile a strong competitor not only in terms of its data plans, but also in terms of its family plan structure. It’s also a top choice for international travelers, since there are no additional roaming charges for using data or sending text messages while overseas. T-Mobile offers a bit less nationwide coverage than Verizon or AT&T, however, so you might want to check coverage where you live before committing to the company’s attractive service plans.
Best Family Plan and Coverage: Verizon
The New Verizon Plan, unveiled by Verizon in July of 2016, offers peace of mind to families that has historically been quite rare. The New Verizon Plan not only increased shared data allotments for families, but also implemented two new features. The first of these features is data rollover, which allows unused data to roll over to the next month with a 30-day expiration period. This rollover data can help alleviate monthly data overages effectively, but it’s not the only way that the New Verizon Plan is competing for business in an increasingly competitive wireless industry.
Verizon’s new plans also include a feature known as “safety mode.” At your discretion, you can enable this mode to reduce data to 2G speeds. As a result, data used does not count against that month’s allotment and can help avoid an overage fee altogether. Verizon also offers discounted mobile data plans for international travel, though international data is not included at no additional charge as it is with plans from competitor T-Mobile. It should also be noted that Verizon is the only one of the four major carriers where unlimited data is simply not available to either individual lines or families on a shared plan. With that said, the company offers the best coverage in the United States as measured by both population and land area where service is available.
Best Place to Bundle: AT&T
AT&T is the only one of the major US cell phone providers where it’s possible to pick up a “quad play.” Thanks to the company’s recent acquisition of DirecTV, as well as its U-Verse service, customers at the nation’s second-largest carrier can buy wireless phone, landline phone, wired broadband, and television service from a single provider.
What does that mean for you? For starters, it means discounts on all four services that can add up to quite a savings over the course of a two-year period. Additionally, AT&T offers special plans if you choose to bundle. This includes an unlimited LTE data plan for all customers who have either DirecTV or U-Verse television and internet services at their home address.
In addition to its unique quad play capability, AT&T also offers the nation’s second-largest LTE and 4G data coverage footprint. AT&T also owns and operates AT&T Mexico, an international subsidiary that offers AT&T customers the benefit of free or reduced-cost data roaming throughout Mexico. A reduced-cost Canadian data roaming plan is also available to customers with larger monthly shared data allotments. Like Verizon, AT&T offers one month of data rollover to help combat overages during high-use months.
What Does It All Mean?
Each American carrier is good at something a bit different, whether it’s offering the best cell phone plans for families, travelers, or bundlers. With that said, there is a clear ranking of today’s wireless carriers based on the combined value of their plans, the generosity of their data allotments, and the way they accommodate large families, international travelers, and businesspeople.
While it might once have been unthinkable, the best cell phone plans, speeds, and value-added amenities for both individuals and families come from T-Mobile. With a massively expanded network, highly affordable prices, and great value-added features for streaming music, streaming video, and international travel, the company offers something for every type of family.
In the runner-up position, Verizon places a strong second behind T-Mobile. The company doesn’t offer unlimited data, but makes up for it by offering to roll over unused data, slow down data speeds in exchange for not charging an overage, and by offering the nation’s largest wireless network. Verizon also lacks value-added services like free international roaming, and might be a good fit for families with lots of mobile data lines or those who don’t view money as a top consideration in choosing their wireless provider.
Finally, AT&T ranks third among the big four wireless providers. Its quad play offers a discount opportunity if you’re willing to bundle multiple services together, and its rollover feature will help keep data use in check. Unfortunately, AT&T offers a smaller network than Verizon, does not allow for data to be slowed down to prevent an overage, and only offers unlimited data to customers with DirecTV or U-Verse service. Furthermore, AT&T charges more money for less mobile data than both Verizon and AT&T, making it less of a value-conscious decision for individuals and families.
Though all three top providers place differently in the rankings, they each offer fast LTE speeds nationwide, with features and benefits that apply to different types of families. As you decide between these three strong competitors, remember to consider not only the cost of the service, but also the overall value, the breadth of the network, and how wireless service might tie into home broadband and entertainment needs.