Picking the right Cell Phone Provider: AT&T vs Verizon vs Sprint vs T-Mobile

[Update: Verizon will begin selling the iPhone as of February 10, 2010.]

Oh, the hellish work of picking a new cell phone provider! I just spent the week going over EVERYTHING I could find on each provider, and the phone they offer. I’ve made a decision, but thought I should share with you the process I went though. After all, I need a post.


I’ve been with T-Mobile for about a year or so – I bought a G1 a couple of months after its release. It was a good phone at first, but there were a lot of problems with the provider, T-Mobile. First, they stopped supporting said G1 – so the version of Android the phone uses as of the last update is the one I’m stuck with now.

T-Mobile logo

Then the battery died horribly. It was fun to hear a T-Mobile employee explain to me that, “yes, your phone is still under warranty, but the battery isn’t.” Which is an interesting sort of philosophical discussion: I am Ciaoenrico, and my finger is part of me. But if I lose my finger, I’m still Ciaoenrico. So how important was that finger really?

Personally, there are a few things I would like to chop off the T-Mobile lawyer who came up with this loophole after they discovered G1 batteries fail in large numbers.

Finally, they’ve been dropping calls and service a lot – to the point I’d get e-mails from people asking me why they couldn’t call me. Then there’s the touch-and-go data service, and GPS coverage that – I swear to you – thought I was in Manitoba, Canada last week.

When I tried to upgrade my phone to a newer T-Mobile handset for the remainder of my contract, I read that doing so requires starting another two-year contract, or else I buy the phone at cost. So rather than give them more of my money, especially since they’ll be going out of business very soon, I’m going to gladly pay the $200 early contract termination fee to be rid of them.


So my first thought, like any red blooded American consumerist stooge, was to get an iPhone 4. They’re sexy, everyone has them, the whole “dropped data” problem has supposedly been solved… let’s go!

AT&T logo

Also, my Girlfriend needs a new phone, as her dealings with Virgin Mobile are almost as bad as mine were.

The first thing I must say is, if you’re thinking about an iPhone, don’t get it from an Apple store. The millennial douchebag (sorry, I meant “genius”) working there quoted me a price of $170 per month for phones for the two of us. Since she only wants a good enough phone, not a smart phone, the plan we needed had a much lower quote – roughly $144.00

I then looked at what everyone says about AT&T as a provider, and the baleful consensus is that they suck. Data runs very slowly, though the phone call quality is good. Well, we all use data networks now, especially if you’re investing in a brand spanking new smart phone. So that was definitely a problem. I also remember AT&T stories this year where they couldn’t handle the load from before the iPad, and how things would only get worse now.

This is to say nothing of the disappointment my Girlfriend said she would have in me if I actually became one of those Apple Fanboys. I agreed, so the search continued.


Signing a contract with Verizon is not unlike signing a contract with The Devil. The possible difference being that with The Devil, you know up front a hell is in your future.

Most customers will tell you Verizon sneaks hell up on you.

Verizon logo

I’ve heard both sides of Verizon from people who sign with them, and it breaks down something like this:

“Verizon has the BEST coverage!”

“Verizon is so EXPENSIVE I had to get a second job to pay for it!”

For all their talk of their coverage area, they do make you pay for it. Their plans for calls and data are more expensive than everyone else I looked at, and other users talk of being nickel and dimed to death on phone extras and apps.

What’s more, when I went into the Verizon store, they actually had me take a number and wait for a salesperson. Wait – I’m considering giving you my money, and you think your shit is so stink-free I’ll happily wait for you? It reflected pretty badly on them. And I had to go back three times in total for more information. Each time, even when there was no one else being helped, I had to take a number.

It was with great pleasure I decided Verizon was out of the running. Whew!


Finally, there’s Sprint, the company I bought my first cell phone from. Sprint offers the Evo, which I’d already heard from a lot of people who had them is a dream. There are a lot of things I like about the phone, but this is about carriers, not handsets.

Sprint logo

Sprint’s big advantage over the others is that they are cheaper than AT&T and Verizon. Their coverage network for voice isn’t as good as Verizon’s or AT&T’s, though, as they roam between networks for their coverage area. This is why calls get dropped, because the phone is jumping from one carrier’s tower to another. So that’s not good. On the other hand, their data network is very strong.

Sprint also allows for free “mobile-to-mobile” calls, regardless of carrier. Wha!?! If I’m calling anyone with a cell phone it’s free minutes? When you think of how few times you call a land line, that’s a pretty good offer. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for someone to tell me why I got it wrong, and that it’s not entirely as good a deal as I think it is. If you know, leave me a comment.

And what about this 4G business? For starters, Sprint’s 4G is really WiMax – a way of juicing up a 3G network. [This was incorrect – WiMax is just another alternative to HSPA.] Real 4G will be available from Verizon late this year, and from AT&T next year. Still, with all that infrastructure to build out, it will be a while until it’s really in place and usable. Sprint’s own 4G isn’t available here in Phoenix, and no one seems to know when it will be. So as long as no one is really offering full 4G speed at the moment, I don’t care.

So my decision is made: I’ll be getting the HTC Evo on Sprint. My Girlfriend found a phone she wants from them as well – also an Android phone, with a ton of features just not available from Virgin Mobile.

The one drawback here – and believe me, all of these plans seem to have advantages and drawbacks compared to each other – is that the on line Sprint store doesn’t have any Evos in stock. It has been reported that Sprint has been trying to build up their stocks of Evos, and that they are having trouble getting the aforementioned 4G network up and running. It makes me wonder if their long-term future isn’t all that bright.

Of course, that’s what I said about T-Mobile last year, and I did manage to get a lot of mileage out of my G1 up until now. Given the fast pace of changes in any electronics product, we’ll all have to go through this roughly every other year, so even if I’m wrong about Sprint, it won’t be long until I have to change up again.

So I’ll just have to wait and see!


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    1. Thanks Andrew – and you’re right, THIS I want! The screen thing is hardly surprising either. From what I’ve read, the worldwide iPad release is going to be hampered by a lack of available screens as well.

      Makes you wonder how much longer we’ll really care about things like Chinese slave labor if fair wages mean geeks need to wait longer for their toys.

  3. I’ve been searching for a new provider for some time. I’ve been
    with Centennial for too many years at a cost of about $10,000
    in monthly payments. Now that At&T purchased Centennial,
    their customer service STINKS.. and I refuse to sign another contract
    for two years of celluar abuse. Searching for another service has
    not been a party ! The nightmare stories of Sprint and Verizon
    has me fearful of signing with either. How can someone sell you
    a phone, charge you $7 a month for extended coverage, and not
    cover it, if the phone is defective two months after you buy it?
    What genius started that scam? What incentive to make
    quality phones if they don’t back up their own product?
    I should pay another $100, if the phone is defective ? ?
    I have also spoke to numerous folks who need to go outside their
    houses to get service for Sprint and Verizon. Their Cellphone does
    not work inside the house!!! What the heck??
    So if a tornado comes thru and I’m trapped in my basement,
    oooops, sorry.. cellphone doesn’t work!
    Today, I found the first honest salesman, he moonlights at
    Sams Club, where they sell AT& T, Verizon, and Sprint.
    Finally I got answers that made sense.
    Basically I learned the same things you mentioned above.
    At&t towers are on overload, dropped calls, IPod/apple
    is no where near what they expected. Verizon has the best
    coverage area, but Sprint shares Verizon towers along
    with their own. Verizon expensive! Contracts a nightmare.
    Sprint might fold in two years, but they are fighting to
    stay above water, by offering great customer service and
    cost. The EVo is the best phone on the market!!!!
    it has been fine tuned, and has past the tests of time.
    It far surpasses the new phone by Samsung to hit the streets
    on Aug. 31st. The reasons are secrets, and someone would
    be eliminated if the truth was leaked.
    Thanks for your input, I will sign on the dotted line
    for Sprint tomorrow. Hopefully you’re on their
    Christmas list!
    oh, my great salesman also told me that Sprint can
    do something to make sure I have coverage in my basement!!!
    (hmmm, wonder if that was a sales pitch?)
    he also told me that the company who makes Evo .. HTC
    is good for backing their products, he’s known of people
    sending their phones in for repairs or replacement if its
    quality related.

    1. Thanks for that! It’s true, I haven’t actually heard anyone complain about Sprint call quality before, but I only hear complaints about AT&T, and my girlfriend had the exact same problem not being able to place calls in her house when she was on Verizon.

  4. Just so you know, WiMax is definitely not “juicing up a 3G network,” it’s just a different type of 4G than what AT&T and Verizon are working on (LTE).

    That being said, I understand your struggle. I had Sprint for years here in Austin and loved it. I’ve been lured over to AT&T for the iPhone, and the service is pretty bad. I even had to get a Microcell (paid $150) for my home, and my voice service STILL isn’t as good as it was when I had Sprint.

    1. Fair enough, Parker – thanks. I actually did more research later on, and found I’d gotten confused: What T-Mobile is proposing is the juiced up 3G solution. WiMax is just an HSPA alternative.

      But the epilogue to all this is I wound up getting a Virgin Mobile Blackberry – which really means Sprint as well. And I agree, the call quality is fabulous.

  5. I completely believe you made the right Choice. I have Verizon, but what sold me wasn’t their plans or their phones. It was their Verizon Wirelesss Zone Franchise store. The guy I dealt with was the owner and treated me alot better than all the other Verizon Corp stores. If you switch service to Verizon go to a Wireless Zone. I went to the Peabody Ma store. They were great.

    1. Thanks for the comment David – I feel I made the right choice by not choosing Verizon too. (You did get that part about me not choosing Verizon, right? Because they’re horrible – whether you get one from corporate or one of their franchises. Whomever sells you the plan, you’re still locked into two years of high fees and an inescapable contract. With dead zones.)

  6. Thank you for all the info on this website. Like most even I’m a “victim” of ATT’s dropped call saga. I get 2 -3 of them a day (at the least) and not to mention the number times I don’t even get a call when someone actually tried to call me. And whats surprising is that I live in Medford, MA which is just 5 miles away from downtown Boston. I was flip-flopping between sprint and verizon. I’m leaning towards sprint after reading this page especially with the value for money they provide with their any mobile any time plan. Although I’ve heard that its only when you’re on the sprint network. When you’re on roaming you lose minutes. Is that true? Also, what are the odds of me being in the same soup (dropped calls, etc) with sprint?

    1. Thanks for the reply Bhattman! Glad I could help!

      As to Sprint, here’s what I know: They drop a lot less calls in town than AT&T. From what I’m told, they have a strong network when you’re in it. I don’t know any friends on Sprint who’ve complained about dropped calls. But the roaming quality isn’t as good as AT&T’s. There again, I have friends with iPhones that cut out in the weirdest places. I wound up going with the Virgin Mobile Blackberry, which is on Sprint’s network. I drove to California with it, and was able to get calls and get on the data network without a hitch. So that’s worth considering as well. (It’s also despicably cheap. $35 a month for 300 minutes and unlimited text & data – not bad, eh?)

      (Oh, and that’s not an ad – I really like the iPhone and Epic phones. I’m just really cheap.)

      IMHO, Sprint’s best if you’re going to use your phone in town most of the time, which most people do. (Plus, the roaming is free anyway.)

  7. Wow, thanks for sharing your experience. My husband & I are trying to decide what carrier to switch to – we are with T-mobile at the moment, & I can’t even talk on my cell in the kitchen! Sprint’s call-any-mobile is VERY enticing, and I also want the EVO. However, I had to wait for Sprint in the same fashion that you had to wait for Verizon, & the Verizon rep I spoke with was super awesome. Most of the research I’ve done says that Verizon’s got the best coverage, but as nice as the lady at Verizon was… I think Sprint’s got what we want for a better price.

  8. Thanks a lot for the clarifying info. I’ve now Verizon, my contract with them is over, so I most likely would switch to Sprint. I hope their coverage area is as good as vz, or close.

    1. You’re welcome – it’s hilarious, the ad I’ve created for Sprint with this post, I think. Especially considering I wound up with Virgin Mobile. (Which is Sprint as well, I suppose.)

  9. I’ll start by saying I have Verizon for my home (internet, TV, and home phone) and so far they’re great, BUT even with the offers they were throwing at me, they couldn’t convince me to leave Sprint for wireless. I’ve been with Sprint for about 8 years and I have not found any other carrier to match their prices, call quality, or customer service. I admit, the Torch (AT&T) tempted me for a bit, but I just couldn’t see paying a monthly mortgage for sub-par phone service. Another perk with Sprint is that they offer GREAT deals and discounts for loyalty customers. Now that the Epic is out, there is really nothing that can get me to leave.

  10. BTW, I’ve had great Sprint coverage thoughout NYC and upstate NY, Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Canada and the Caribbean.

    1. Thanks for the comments!

      I think price is what makes ALL of the contract options so unpopular. I know a lot of people would gladly pay full price for the handset they really want – iPhone, Epic, Blackberry, whatever – if they could use it on the carrier of their choice.

      That way, if you did go to Verizon and they were a big fail, you could quickly switch up to someone else. Then the carriers would actually need to stay on top of coverage and data issues, instead of relaxing with the though that their subscribers are locked in for months and months.

  11. As odd as this may sound, my friend left Sprint because of additional roaming fees, on top of adding a line w/o telling her, as it wasn’t printed on the billing statement. Granted, my friend only encountered these problems after moving to a different part of Staten Island.
    On top of everything else, I feel like I’m the only person who hasn’t had a problem with AT&T as far as dropped calls. I may encounter one once every 2-3 months, tops. I’m not on the go, but the phone seems fine for me.
    It’s a shame, since I live in the same area my friend moved to, so I’m skeptical about picking up Sprint. The Evo looks so nice, too. :[

  12. Thanks for the review, we have a while before we have to sign another contract. I have a Droid, the original one with Verizon and I love it, only think I do not love is the $30 fee that comes along with it. On top of that Verizon gets off by actually charging an additional $10 if you purchase one of their “multi-media” phones which in reality are just a bunch of BS with tiny screens and the ability to have a video camera on your phone. My parents wanted to get the EnV 3 but just for messaging purposes not for internet, Verizon doesn’t give you the option to not get internet, even if you block it from your phone you still have to pay for it! Just B.S! They ended up with a crappy LG something or another which is like an EnV but not, and the keys are like pressing hard plastic down. They almost force people into buying this package by making bad phones.

    We are looking to switch to another carrier but were unsure because I love my droid, I always have coverage no matter what even when I am using it on our way from Ohio to Florida ad going through the mountains of West VA my cell does not lose coverage and the GPS works flawlessly. My friend had an iPhone and the GPS was the worst thing I have ever used.

    My point to this, Verizon will be jacking up their prices for 4G regardless if you want it or not. I need a smartphone for school and the fact I will be studying abroad in 2012, which is also when our contract will be up. I would love to have another droid, and would probably sstick with Verizon however if prices are really going to raise that much then is it really worth it? We were looking at Sprint but we want the coverage Verizon has to offer as well as the phones. I love Android, but we feel stuck, ATT doesn’t havegood phones or coverage and in all honesty, when i see iPhone the only word that comes to my head is “gay” lol.

    Any suggestions or insight on how prices will be for 4G or how much more they will be?

  13. I’ve decided to leave the contract stuff behind. My Sanyo lasted a whole seven months before it completely failed to take a charge (and a sudden failure, too)… but I should have been grateful. I returned it, ready to go Smartphone and up my plan… but no, I’m not eligible for upgrade, so I just replaced it… with a phone that didn’t hold a charge at all.
    So I brought that one back. And the one after that. And the one after that. That’s right. FOUR defective phones. Go to their site and — oh, yes, *lots* of people are posting to their forum “why doesn’t my SCP 2700 take a charge?” so they *know* it’s a problem.
    No, they aren’t even willing to give me a new instead of refurbished model on this, the fifth attempt.
    All otehr aspects of the company are acceptable — as you said, Verizon is simply the Devil — but the sprint repair store is a half-hour ride (if I hit the lights right) across town, and my schedule doesn’t let me do that every three days when the batteries run down.

  14. I’m going through the same dilemma of choosing a carrier. I have been with Verizon for 6 years, and I wanted to see what else was out there. All I wanted to do was talk and text, but verizon’s basic phones (feature phones) are all lousy. The thing that stinks about Verizon is that you can’t just go into a Verizon store and try out the phones, b/c none of them actually work. I’ve been in 4 stores and you have to wait for the uninterested sales person. I went to a T-Mobile store and you could demo almost every model, but the sales people were a little pushy. At Sprint all the phones could be used and the sales guy I happend to deal with was not pushy. He was helpful and looked for employee discounts for my wife and I. I asked about discounts through work @ T-Mobile and you would have thought I dropped the F-bomb. Right now, for an all inclusive package of talk, text, & web, Sprint has a big price advantage. I told Verizon customer service I was thinking of switching providers when my contract ends, and they really didn’t seem to care too much. I was trying to get a better price out of them, but it seems that they don’t deal. This is too bad, because I have never had a problem with a phone/ coverage/ or dropped calls anywhere I’ve been. It looks like I may be giving Sprint a try.

    1. I had the same experience with Verizon. My contract is up now and I am thinking about switching to Sprint. I went to Verizon and told them I was comparing and the sales lady flat out said “I can guarantee we can’t beat Sprints prices” Didn’t really seem to care if I left Verizon or not. Their prices are outrages as well. The 30 fee for the smart phone hardly compares to Sprints 10 dollar fee which also entices me to switch. Like you the Sprint guy tried to find me discounts on my bill which would be unheard of with Verizon. My call quality with Verizon is great except in my own home where i sneeze and drop a call – granted i live in the country so I will probably have the same problem no matter who the carrier is so why not go with the cheaper service. The plans through Sprint are much more affordable and you really get more bang for your buck! Hope I don’t make the wrong choice but we are going to try Sprint.

      1. I don’t think Sprint is going anywhere anytime soon. Granted, if the T-Mobile/AT&T merger goes through they’ll be the smallest of three. But their service is very tight, they offer great phones, and I’ve yet to hear the level of complaining about them that AT&T or Verizon gets.

        Thanks for chiming in!

  15. Ok, honest question, i read everything your site says, information overload, in a good way, but am left a tad confused.

    I’d like to get a plan, primary for texting as i don’t make many calls, the only calls i get are from my family, whom are the most important part of my life and i would hate to miss a call from them or have poor reception or not receive the call because of a bad network . This is truly my biggest sticking point; however my other two reasons for getting a phone would be texting and internet, but purely for entertainment. So what is the general consensus about a phone based on best reliability for receiving calls????

    1. From everything I’ve seen, Verizon has the best coverage, so they’re the ones least likely to cut out on you. But once you start considering that along with connectivity, cost and actual call quality, things get tougher. I suppose as a cynic I take things in reverse – trying to find which one is the least awful. If cost isn’t a concern, Verizon is probably the best for you. If reliable data is less of a concern, there’s T-Mobile. Sprint is probably the best all-around, but that really means everything they offer is middle-of-the-road.

      In the end, I copped out – I went with a Blackberry from Virgin mobile, because they’re no-contract, they run on Sprint’s network, and they have a supercheap plan. ($35 for unlimited text, messaging, and data.) This way, when cell phone providers finally have a product that’s actually worth paying $100 a month, but charge significantly less for it, I can think about trading up then.

      Hope that helps – good luck!

  16. I think I have information overload too! Ugh, I abhor having to choose a different carrier but I think I really need to. I have an Alltel plan (contract expired 10/09) that was ‘grandfathered’ to Verizon. I need more minutes but being able to text more would be great too. I need HELP and would consider prepaid. I’m in no hurry to sign a contract and would prefer to just buy the phone without being ‘locked in’. Price is important, as well as minutes and then texting. Any suggestions for my area (Springfeild, MO)?
    In the meantime, I’ll check out Sprint, AT&T’s GoPhone and Boost Mobile. I’m not sure if Virgin Mobile has decent coverage here in the ‘Ozarks’. Thanks for your advice and help…

    1. The nice thing about contract free is that all of the major carriers have their own contract free companies. So if one or another has a stronger signal in your area, you can always sign up with their contract free version. Obviously you already know about AT&T’s version GoPhone – but Virgin Mobile is actually Sprint. Verizon has it’s own prepaid company too T-Mobile has one, but they might be swallowed up soon by AT&T, so they may not have one very soon.

      At any rate, I would totally recommend a contract-free phone until you know exactly which phone and plan you’re willing to be saddled with for the next two years. The Virgin Mobile plan was the best one for me, but I would certainly give a look at the coverage area maps that all providers have on their sites to see which one works where you are.

      And thanks for the comment!

  17. Thank you for this article. I agree – when cell carriers find loopholes around their responsibilities, it is vexing. The idea that they can do this while holding customers captive within a contract just makes things worse.

    Just glad you’re looking out for us the way you are! I’m a huge fan! 🙂

  18. Thanks for this! A friend told me about Virgin today and this phone he likes (LG Optimus). Great point you make about the flexibility of the no-contract option. I might as well opt out of Verizon, switch to Virgin (I’m on a cross-country trip and would also like mobile Internet for my laptop so I can pretend I will work in the car), and switch back to Verizon if Virgin’s coverage is too droppy. Verizon has sucked up a lot of my money, so it can’t complain.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I like the LG Optimus – I really liked my old Android phone. Having the choice of using the onboard keyboard or Swype would be great.

  19. As far as ‘taking a number’ to wait… they all do that… period at least in my area.

    Me Ive been with US Cellular for years, but per researching non-andrioid non-windows phones I am considering leaving them.

    TIll now they have in fact been cheaper than everybody else… but with a new fancy phone they wont be.

    Ive been paying $20 to $30 less than all other other choices with zero problems except for coverage when outside my state it varies on coverage.

    But now I need a better phone, and IM leaning toward Sprint since they are the only one that comes close to the ‘unlimited’; that I have now.

  20. Sprint….hmmm…where do I begin to tell the story of the Sprint-hell they have put me through over the years I have been a “valued customer”? Several times they have charged me “overage” because my alleged “free mobile-to-mobile” was erroneously considered part of my usage minutes. They have added ring-tone charges to my account that I did not order. I have spent hours on the phone with them as they passed me from one rep to another in order to “help me solve” my concerns. If anyone chooses Sprint as their carrier, my advice would be to monitor your bill very closely as their idea of what is “free” likely is not! And they will give you some “valid” reason as to why your cell-to-cell calls end up costing you. But considering the reviews I have read regarding other carriers…maybe the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know,as the saying goes.

  21. oh…and the “free roaming”… yeah, that’s what they told me when I signed up a while back…and was told today that roaming isn”t free if the person I am calling isn’t near one of their towers!
    The one thing that is truly free with Sprint is the bs they give out so liberally!

    1. Wow – thanks for that! Good rant.

      That’s why I’ve avoided contract plans all these years: If you’re locked into a 2-year deal, your provider can pull out almost anything on you. Since none of them are stellar, I avoid them. It’s about the only way to keep from getting nickle and dimed to death.

  22. I have been with Verizon for many years now and can’t complain. ALL the major cell phone carriers have employee discounts if your company has cell phones from them. Well, I can’t say for sure about T-Mobile, but Sprint, AT&T and Verizon all do. I am in charge of the wireless devices at my company so I deal with them all.

    Verizon gives me – 6% on voice plans over $40.00 (that was the amount when I first signed up) and 15% on my data plan (I am grandfathered in on the unlimited data plan.) All you need to do is enter your email address on their website using your corporate email address to see if you are eligible)

    AT&T gives a straight 8% discount.

    Sprint has something too that I don’t remember, but only 1 person in the company uses it.

    What can I say about sprint? I know one person who can’t use the phone anywhere in his house. My cousin was without a phone for 2 weeks while her phone was being repaired- and that was WITH insurance, she had to take it to a store to be repaired and had to find somebody to lend her a phone so she wasn’t stuck. She doesn’t have a problem with the service but I couldn’t deal with being phoneless for 2 weeks.

    AT&T is just always messing things up with my bill and service changes, I need to stay on top of them. Verizon can be a pain, but I have never not gotten what I needed from them. I send text messages using an app through my data plan and occasionally tether my thunderbolt to my laptop when the need arises, also through an app that I paid $5.00 for but no recurring charges.

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