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Ask Slashdot: Best Cell Phone Carrier In the US? 375

Posted by Soulskill
from the bring-on-the-anecdotes dept.
martypantsROK writes "After nearly seven years of living abroad, I'm planning to return to the U.S. in early 2013. Last time I lived there, smart phones weren't out yet. Dropped calls were common, and poor reception (can you hear me now?) was an ad campaign. I'm used to South Korea's wicked speeds, both for internet and wireless networks, and I'm wondering what the Slashdot community believes to be best carrier in the U.S. Which is fastest? Which offers the best deal for lots of data? Nationwide roaming and coverage? Prices? Service?"
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Ask Slashdot: Best Cell Phone Carrier In the US?

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  • Verizon (Score:1, Informative)

    by djwyldeone (873312) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:01PM (#41533533)
    Depends on your location. Verizon has been the strongest as far as signal and speed form my experience.
  • by be99 (1598591) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:02PM (#41533543)
    www.opensignalmaps.com - Great for telling you coverage of the various phone providers. If you're going for sprint, try www.ting.com (I don't work for them) - but that said, they seem to be the most sane in terms of billing.
  • by Nethead (1563) <joe@nethead.com> on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:05PM (#41533571) Homepage Journal

    The best customer service you'll get is T-Mobile. Not the best coverage if you are outside of a metro area but they have fantastic UMA (WiFi calling) support. Their plans are as good or better than others.

    Just getting reasonable people on the phone for support is what has kept me happy for 7 years.

  • Re:Verizon (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:11PM (#41533609)

    From what I can tell, in terms of speed and signal reliability this guy is correct. However, in terms of reasonable pricing, I would try one of the pre-paid plans (Boost, Tmobile, StraightTalk). I'm on Tmobile's $30 / month plan that only has 100 minutes but has unlimited text and data (2 or 5 gigs at HSPA+ then down to edge. HSPA+ is short of 4g LTE speed but still quite fast). I circumvent the minutes limit by routing calls through Google Voice, and while to set that up was a hassle, I'm very much enjoying my $30/month bill for all the data capabilities I've been allotted.

  • by hawkeyeMI (412577) <brock@brock[ ]e.com ['tic' in gap]> on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:12PM (#41533617) Homepage
    I used T-Mobile for years, and was very happy with them in major metropolitan areas. I had to switch to Verizon when I moved to a rural area, and I hate them. We now have T-Mobile coverage here, so once the next batch of Nexus phones are announced, I'm switching back.

    IME you can't beat the customer service from T-Mobile. Verizon's has been less than great and their prices are through the roof.
  • by Macrat (638047) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:12PM (#41533621)

    Very true.

    Want to turn over your wallet for high monthly charges? Chose AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.

    T-Mobile is the only real choice.

  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:26PM (#41533719)

    Verizon has ubiquitous buildouts of outdated wireless infrastructure. They can service a text message or a voice call almost anywhere in the US. They also charge 70+ a month for basic service, and have technological limitations on surfing while talking. I hear their customer service is legendary in the "eldritch horror" category.

    ATT has the best GSM tech buildout in the US, but is SERIOUSLY oversold. They engage in abusive market tactics, pathologically insist the problem isn't from overselling, and have customer service horrible enough that even verizon could appear desirable. Theoretically can surf and talk simultaneously, but charge extra for the priviledge of tethering, drop calls horribly, and have spotty data coverage.

    Sprint-Nextel has a fairly stable network of comparatively subpar network technologies servicing cheaper prepaid type devices and feature phones. Cheap and ubiquitous, but data is a farce, IIRC.

    T-Mo has very limited buildout, is not loved by the parent company (deutch telecom), and struggles in the telecom marketplace. Despite this, has fairly nice customer service, offers incentives for patronage of their users, and are trying to improve coverage maps and network tech. Currently involved in a fairly ambitious LTE 4G buildout. Reasonably inexpensive; no contract unlimited talk, text, and 2gb 4G data for 60/mo. (Not the fastest though. 5300kbps down, 1200kbps up last I measured in my area.) Spotty coverage. Claim to fame is wifi calling and free teathering.

    To me, the ideal carrier could only be born from strongly enforced neutrality laws allowing cheap sublicense of spectrum and infrastructure, with a dual technology, quad-band handset, able to leverage verizon's CDMA network as a fallback, and full GSM operation on both ATT and T-Mo spectrum. Such a company could never exist in the USA under prevailing conditions, which do not foster true innovative service offerings, but rather collusion based pricing hegemonies.

    That's about the schtick of it as far as I know.

    I actually like T-Mo, despite the weak coverage areas. I recently got a nice promotional offer from them recently for being a long term customer. (They offered the next tier service at my current tier price for 12 months, which greatly increased my dl cap at 4G speed.)

    As far as I know, ATT and verizon bend over backwards to make you lose old plans they think aren't profitable, and force you to spend money. (I can revert to my previous level of service very painlessly with T-Mo after the promotion ends.)

    If you are spoiled by south korean telecom, you be mortified by the horrible state of american telecom.

  • Check the maps (Score:4, Informative)

    by Zibodiz (2160038) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:28PM (#41533739)
    Check the coverage maps, then get an MVNO that operates off the towers of whoever has the best coverage. Straight Talk offers phones on all 4 major networks, for significantly lower monthly costs and no contracts. Boost and Cricket have pretty good prices too. In my area, the only national carrier with decent coverage is Verizon, but I'm sure that changes for the Eastern Seaboard.
  • verizon vs t-mobile (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:36PM (#41533803)

    They are exact opposites among 4 major carriers, each is best on its own accord:

    Verizon - best coverage, fastest internet, but uses CDMA so cannot use phone abroad, they charge arm and leg for everything, including $30/mo for SMS (tmobile offers it for free), they will happily cripple your phone for no reason, and generally many people try to stay away from it.

    T-Mobile - best prices on contract, GSM network, allows to bring your own phone and gives a monthly discount if you do. Was the first carrier to offer Android. Good coverage in populated areas, adequate coverage elsewhere. They do allow to unlock phone you bought with the plan but if you travel, then buy unlocked phone elsewhere then get their discounted contract.

  • T-mobile (Score:5, Informative)

    by mrsam (12205) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:40PM (#41533831) Homepage

    Buy an unlocked GSM phone, and activate it on T-mobile. Or, keep the one you have, if it can handle US frequencies.

    Of the four national US carries (small regional carriers typically piggy-back on the big nationals), only AT&T and T-mobile are GSM. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA.

    Over ten years ago I dropped AT&T after their network became too saturated, and became pretty much unusable. From what I hear, things haven't changed.

    Verizon and AT&T have the largest network and best, fastest coverages; but if you're moving to a large, populated, city, T-mobile's coverage will probably be as best as the bigger guys. Out in less-populated areas, far away from the civilization, Verizon's going to be only game in town; sometimes it's AT&T.

    Sprint falls somewhere in the middle between Verizon/AT&T, and T-mobile, who is the smallest, but I think they're the most friendly to people who prefer to use their own, unlocked phone, and have very low tolerance for US cell carrier B.S. They even used to have discounted plans for people who bring their own unlocked phones, but I don't think they do that anymore. They do have "pre-paid" plans, which seem to be a bit cheaper.

    There's no such thing as an unlocked CDMA phone, so with Verizon or Sprint you have to buy one from them, when you buy service. Verizon is notorious for feature-castrating their phones. It's been my experience that "Bluetooth" on Verizon's castrated phones only means a wireless headphone. That's it. No bluetooth file transfer/browsing, no other Bluetooth profiles. If you want to load your own MP3 ringtone, you can only get them on the phone by buying them from Verizon. Sometimes, I heard a rumor that some Verizon phones let you configure an MP3 ringtone that you've transferred over USB, but, it's been my experience that the UI on Verizon's phones do not let you select an uploaded/copied ringtone.

    I've been happy on T-mobile for the last ~10 years. They don't care what phone I use, I just pop in a SIM, and off I go. I finally decided to get a data plan as a back-up for my wired broadband, since I telecommute. Set it up, then twiddled a bit with my phone, and had it set up tethering without any issues. From what I heard, if you want to tether with the bigger carriers, you're likely end up getting charged extra, on top of paying for the data. Utter bullshit. From what I've heard, they've been getting bitch-slapped recently, on that account, because, supposedly they're not allowed to do that anymore, as a condition for buying some recently-auctioned wireless spectrum. Whatever, I don't care.

    As far as prices go, the differences between the carriers are pretty much negligible. The only other thing is: T-mobile, themselves, does not sell Iphones; but if you get an unlocked GSM one, shouldn't be too difficult to activate it. Verizon and AT&T are the primary carriers of Iphone in the US. I think Sprint might be selling them too, though.

  • Re:Verizon (Score:5, Informative)

    by narcc (412956) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:43PM (#41533853) Journal

    It depends on where you live. Verizon has more than a few completely dead spots where I live, and virtually no signal at my workplace, so they're completely out of the running.

    The wife is on Sprint, which is worse than useless here as well -- she'll be switching to a different provider in January.

    I'm on AT&T now. I haven't found a spot that it doesn't work locally, and I haven't noticed any issues while traveling.

    Of course, YMMV.

  • Verizon, Hands Down (Score:5, Informative)

    by matthaak (707485) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @09:54PM (#41533943) Homepage Journal
    There's much discussion of coverage and speed. Where I live, near Chicago, Verizon can't be beat. But the bigger thing for me is that their Customer Service is very good. I could not believe when I got my iPhone 5 a couple of days ago and had trouble activating it, I called Verizon and was speaking with a good english speaker in less than a minute. This was with millions of people getting the iPhone 5 (probably a good portion of them on Verizon.) My wife just had to call their tech support because her 4S wasn't getting on 3G. Again, she was speaking to someone within less than a minute who was knowledgable. Ironically, as I write this, it turns out the 3G network is down. But Verizon outages like this are very rare and in this day in age of complete crap support and idiot agents, I'd almost rather have a day of outage every year supported by decent people than only an hour supported by morons.
  • by _merlin (160982) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @10:26PM (#41534149) Homepage Journal

    No, he's talking out his arse. For one, his talk about CDMA use is nonsense - Korea, Japan and Vietnam all use US-style CDMA, and Australia did for a while before dropping it. The most widespread 3G system is W-CDMA (called UMTS when it's run at 2.1GHz), so all the world is using a form of CDMA.

    On the technical front, he's talking crap, too. The way CDMA works is that everyone on a channel transmits on the same frequency at the same time, but everyone's signal is scrambled using a different permutation of the "convolution code". This means that to each user, every other user's signal appears as noise. The scrambling needs to be precisely synchronised for this to work properly, hence the need for high-accuracy, (typically GPS-derived) time in base stations. It also means that adding more users to a channel just degrades the signal for everyone and gradually reduces the effective coverage area of the base. This is sold as an advantage, as you don't need as many bases to get coverage of the same size area if users are sparse.

    The complication comes in when you have a nearby mobile and a more remote mobile: assuming they have the same transmission power capability, if both transmit as full power, the nearby mobile's signal, appearing as noise when the base is trying to decode the remote mobile's signal, will totally swamp it. The base has to actively manage the transmit power of all mobile stations so that each one is transmitting at the lowest power at which it can receive a reliable signal. This is a complicated optimisation problem that uses lots of CPU power in the base station. It sends literally hundreds of transmit power management messages each second to each mobile. W-CDMA, with wide 5MHz channels, also gives the base station freedom to assign different size parts of the code tree to different mobiles, allowing bandwidth and reliability to be traded off on yet another level.

    The reason you can get dropouts is that a bad decision by the base, or a badly behaved mobile that's closer to the base than you can cause the base to lose your signal. Also, excessive users on the channel (i.e. network operator not building enough base stations for number of users) will tend to cause the people with marginal signal to lose their connection.

    By comparison, in a TDMA system (like GSM, iDEN or TETRA) each active mobile is assigned a timeslot, and they only transmit/receive in their allocated timeslot. Once you have a timeslot (making a call or establishing a CSD connection), it's yours until you give it up as long as you'e in the cell. If there are too many active users in the cell, you can't get a timeslot and therefore can't make a call. GPRS/EDGE packet data uses dynamically allocated timeslots that are assigned for brief periods - just long enough to send/receive a few packets at a time. There's also the issue of control channel capacity - control channels are used for call establishment sequences, SMS, cell broadcast packet timeslot negotiation, and authentication/keep-alive traffic. Control channels are a limited resource that can be over-utilised by having too many users, too many data connections, or too much SMS traffic.

    Sounds simpler, right? Well, it isn't quite so easy. Remember the speed of radio wave propagation isn't infinite? If everyone was the same distance from the base, getting the timeslots to line up would be easy, but as they aren't the more distant a mobile is from the base, the earlier they have to transmit, so that the signal arrives at the right moment as seen by the base ("timing advance"). If this isn't managed correctly, received signals will overlap and corrupt each other, particularly if the signal from one (presumably closer) mobile is far stronger than the signal from another (presumably more distant) mobile. There's also a limit to how much timing advance a base can manage, meaning that under ideal signal propagation conditions there will be a distance lockout point where you will be cut off abruptly (IIRC it's typically configured for 15km, 35km or 50km for GSM, depending on user density and cell layout - it loses some capacity when configured for longer lockout distances).

    Anyway, it's not that either system is designed to drop your call, they just have different trade-offs.

  • Re:Is there one? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @10:51PM (#41534251)

    Been a really long time since I commented here on /.

    I'm an indirect agent for Verizon. I'll try not to be bias, but I'm putting that out there.

    Our old unlimited plans were also $30/month extra on your phone, I am not sure where the $20/month you mention comes from. The plan since the change away from unlimited was $30/mo for 2gb per phone. Those plans are no longer available for new service contracts.

    Recent share plans start as low as 300mb ($40/mo overall plan price + $40 smartphone), and once you hit the 2gb tier($60/mo plan price +$40 smartphone), its $10/month for every 2gb.

    So 10gb/month($100/mo) is $40/month higher than 2gb/month($60/mo).

    My personal experience and opinion, I DO prefer verizon. I've always had good coverage and network speeds, and I travel to visit family regularly.
    Tmobile is good in some markets, and very competitive with price, but has very limited genuine 4G coverage. (For example my dad is moving, and his new home will have no coverage for his long time carrier since he switched away from Sprint.)

    ATT is usually the slowest network with decent coverage, and I believe their pricing is similar to verizon.
    Sprint is OK, but again, limited market coverage. I like their pricing, but the way they do tiered unlimited is deceiving at times.

  • by Maow (620678) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @11:05PM (#41534323) Journal

    I'd add www.coveragemapper.com [coveragemapper.com] and www.cellmapper.net [cellmapper.net] to the list although I'm not sure how complete their coverage maps are for USA; pretty good for Canada.

    I checked out opensignal.com (formerly opensignalmaps.com) and was disappointed in the countries & cities they had maps for.

  • Re:Is there one? (Score:2, Informative)

    by erice (13380) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @12:39AM (#41534817) Homepage

    Tmobile is good in some markets, and very competitive with price, but has very limited genuine 4G coverage.

    If by "very limited" mean "they don't have any" then you're right. But then no-one else has LTE-Advanced either and that's only technology being called 4G that genuinely is.

  • Re:Verizon (Score:3, Informative)

    by markzip (1313025) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @12:44AM (#41534843)
    +1 to this
    (Assuming you are going to be spending the majority of your time in an urban area)
    Get an unlocked Galaxy Nexus (or whatever the next Nexus is) and use it on the Straight Talk T Mobile service.
    Here's a pretty comprehensive guide: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1646755 [xda-developers.com] Plus, here's another vote for T-Mobile's customer service.
  • AT&T (Score:5, Informative)

    by oldhack (1037484) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @01:22AM (#41534979)

    Let me simplify this.

    Go with t-mobile.

    T-mobile coverage sucks where you live? Well, then you're stuck with Verizon (or whoever else is around).

    What about AT&T you ask? Let me tell you. If you're a person who never had to deal with AT&T, you're one lucky lifeform. I'm not so lucky. I pay twice the AT&T advertised rate to the monopoly cable ISP for my home just so that I won't have to deal with AT&T.

    Sprint, I don't know about.

  • Re:T-Mobile (Score:5, Informative)

    by funkify (749441) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:49AM (#41537005)
    If you buy an unlocked phone for T-Mobile, best make sure it uses both the 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz bands. Otherwise, you'll be limited to 2G speeds. GSMArena's phone finder tool [gsmarena.com] can help you find handsets that meet this criteria.
  • Re:Is there one? (Score:4, Informative)

    by router (28432) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [r.a]> on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @09:47AM (#41538275) Homepage Journal

    T-Mobile Monthly. 60$, 2GB 4G, unlimited slow after that. Unlimited text and voice. Spotty coverage for data, but sometimes blazing fast (SF bay area, LA, etc).

    Most importantly, no hassles! Pay. Works. Don't pay, doesn't work. No contract. No activation fees. No fee fees. OMFG awesome.

    You have to provide your own phone. Google Galaxy Nexus was my choice, but then I like the Google infrastructure.

    andy

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