Verizon is supposed to be the best, and the data supposedly backs that up. Their coverage is, in my convenience-sample1 backed estimation, the widest ranging. I’m ~never somewhere where I cannot make a call on Verizon. But I’m frequently unable to connect to the internet – on LTE!
I prefer MVNOs
They’re cheaper and easier to switch between, but the best plans (without considering price) are post-paid through the major carriers. But approximately or effectively equivalent plans are often MVNO options. For example, my Verizon coverage is via Verizon Visible’s Plus plan – an excellent plan, with 50GB of prioritized data (which is of outsized importance on Verizon, because of their annoying network management3 and often low capacity) and unlimited data thereafter. They also include some free international roaming4, which, at this point in my life, isn’t of much consequence. They also include 5G UW access, which is nice but unnecessary: I’d prefer solid LTE that actually works most of the time.
Arguably, the ability to make calls is more important: it’s better to be without internet communication than without communication altogether. But in practice, Verizon’s zero or near-zero internet speeds are the most annoying.
I live in an area with good coverage (often low- or mid-band 5G) from all three carriers2, and where Verizon is good, it’s really good. I’ve never been in a situation where I’m so far outside of a Verizon coverage zone that I’m unable to place a call, but I’m frequently unable to connect to the internet, which I do much more often than talking on the phone.
One of the places where Verizon doesn’t work is school – obviously, somewhere where I spend a significant amount of time. Because of this, I got a cheap Boost Mobile (AT&T) SIM, on their $25 for 35GB plan, as a second line on my iPhone.
I’ve been dual SIM for about six months now, and it’s time to pull the plug on my Verizon (Visible) service. AT&T often feels slower (which is likely because Boost is deprioritized) than Verizon (when it works), but I’ll take “slower and more consistent” over “faster, except when it’s slower than dial-up”. And almost every time I lose internet connectivity on Verizon, switching data to AT&T gets me back online. I’ve experienced this around my town and neighboring ones, on long drives, and in other states.
I’m looking for an alternative, preferably on AT&T. The tech media seems to be running a marketing campaign for T-Mobile, insisting they’re the best carrier overall. Admittedly, I haven’t used T-Mobile for a few years, but the coverage wasn’t great5.
I’m considering AT&T Prepaid’s Unlimited MAX (though the 5GB of hotspot5 might not be enough), Cricket’s unlimited plan (though I don’t love Cricket), and Google Fi7.
I like Google Fi for the price – $20/month per line with a family8 plan. Its being a Google product is also nice, since I would prefer dealing with them than e.g., AT&T’s antiquated PayGo portal.
The problem with Fi is its using T-Mobile. As I mentioned, it’s been a few years since I daily drove their network; I’m willing to give it another shot, though, and they’re (T-Mobile) offering a trial!
Speaking of, T-Mobile’s post-paid plans are good both in features and in price.
I’ve wondered about this for a while without finding a decent answer9: doesn’t the existence of domestic roaming agreements between US carriers mean Verizon’s advantage – calling – is moot? If one network’s data coverage is better, more consistent in areas you frequent, wouldn’t domestic roaming fill in the gaps?
It turns out domestic roaming agreements are weird, and the agreements between carriers are very location specific. Just because there’s AT&T coverage in an area without e.g., Verizon or T-Mobile coverage doesn’t mean you can roam on one of those networks. It seems like it’s more of a thing in rural areas with hyper regional carriers – thus, LTEiRA agreements.
Domestic roaming is also, traditionally, a feature of the big three’s post-paid plans (though Visible began offering it recently).
That’s where I am with my wireless providers. I’ve been meaning to switch for some time but have been carried by the inertia of my Boost/Visible+ combo working. I almost never have a problem with coverage, because when I do, I can switch to Boost from cellular settings, and continue. But this setup is overpriced and unnecessary; it’s annoying that Verizon’s subsidiary MVNO offers such a compelling plan, and AT&T’s doesn’t.
I might post an update here, if/when I find and switch to a better plan. But for now, I’m tired of opining on cell phone service.
I went through a period of being intensely interested in cell phone carriers, MVNOs, plans, etc. If you’re interested and want to learn more (you can get much more into the weeds than I did) or keep up with industry news, take a look at Sneed Mobile Tech and Light Reading. Stetson Doggett does a fantastic job covering plans in particular.
1A less clear way of saying “completely anecdotal”, which I left in as a relic of AP Statistics that other students might appreciate.
2My experience with T-Mobile is less recent, but their coverage seems fine in most areas I frequent. There is one area in particular, though, where the three carriers are co-located, all except Verizon with usable internet access.
3Carriers use QCI (quality control index) numbers to prioritize network activity – some are GBR (guaranteed bitrate), which is reserved for live audio or video (e.g., phone calls); others are for diagnostics, etc.; but the higher (and, thus, lower priority) indexes are for data. On Verizon, there are three: 7, 8, and 9. 7 is Frontline, Verizon’s first-responder plan. 8 and 9 are for the consumer plans, 8 being “prioritized”, 9 being “deprioritized”. The prioritized plans are relatively few – mostly comprising of Verizon’s own first-party, post-paid plans (except the recent, terrible Welcome Unlimited), and the Spectrum/Xfinity Mobile plans (which, interesting, are also postpaid). Almost every Verizon MVNO is deprioritized – the likes of TracFone, etc. – and prioritization can be the difference between usable internet and “have fun with 2G”.
4I think AT&T has the best (but not the cheapest – that might be T-Mobile) international roaming. I don’t remember the details exactly, but it’s worth googling, if you’re interested.
5T-Mobile’s advertising makes me laugh: they call themselves the “best 5G network”, carefully distinguishing their claim from that of “best network”.
6You change some network settings on your tethered device – ttl – to mask your traffic as coming from the phone, which should bypass the cap.
7Google Fi on iPhone is annoying to set up, and Google doesn’t seem to care much.
8My family is mixed across cell phone plans and providers, so it’ll be annoying to switch, but the savings make it worth the trouble.
9I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere; my trouble is probably a product of my not knowing how to phrase my question for Google.