Compare and Contrast: AT&T vs. Verizon in iPhone Plan Face-Off

iphone planAt the dawn of automobile mass-production, Henry Ford famously said of his Model T: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." Until recently, the iPhone was in its Model T era. You could customize it with different apps and cases, but any customer could get any iPhone so long as the data provider was AT&T.

No more. Now everyone has a choice -- AT&T, and as of last Thursday, Verizon. But which is the best? To find out, Compare and Contrast studied the phone companies' data plans, assessed their prices and looked at their customer service rankings. All information is current as of Feb. 9. Prices are subject to change. Provider: AT&T
Phone prices for new customers: $49 for 8-gigabyte iPhone 3G version, one cent to $19 for used version; $199.99 for new 16-gigabyte iPhone 4 version, $49 for used version; $299 for new 32-gigabyte iPhone 4 version, $99 for used version.
Data plan prices: $15 a month for a 200-megabyte plan covers 1,000 e-mails, 150 e-mails with document attached; Web browsing for 400 pages; 50 uploads of photos to social sites; and 20 minutes of YouTube streaming each month. (AT&T says that 65% of customers use less than 200 megabytes a month.) $25 a month for a 2-gigabyte plan covers 10,000 e-mails, 1,500 e-mails with documents attached; Web browsing for 4,000 pages, 500 uploads of photos to social sites; 200 minutes of YouTube streaming each month. (AT&T says that 98% of customers use less than 2 gigabytes a month.)
Perk: AT&T boasts that only on its network can users surf the Web and talk on the phone at the same time.
Customer satisfaction: According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, AT&T mobility earned a score of 69 in 2010. That's below the average score of 72 for the industry, but up 3% from 2009.

Provider: Verizon
Phone prices for new customers: $199.99 for the 16-gigabyte iPhone 4 version, $299 for the 32-gigabyte iPhone 4 version. Both offers are for a two-year contract.
Data plan prices: $29.99 for an unlimited data package.
Perk: The fact that an alternative exists; AT&T has been widely criticized for network unreliability.
Customer satisfaction: The ACSI gave Verizon Wireless a 73 last year, right above the industry average customer satisfaction score of 72. That's a 1.4% decrease from 2009.

What we think: We're thrilled that the iPhone has opened up to Verizon. Not only does it give AT&T haters another option, the competition may push AT&T to further improve its customer service. Time will tell, but the 3% increase in AT&T's ACSI score last year is a good sign, and all the more encouraging when juxtaposed with Verizon's slight decline.

Yes, we understand that many of you are anti-AT&T, and it is disconcerting to see its satisfaction score below the industry average. But we still think AT&T is the data plan to pick.

Only AT&T offers 3G. That model's dated, true, but it's a good option if you don't want to spend too much on a smartphone. And the pricing for the data plans is more flexible, and in the end, a better deal. If you pan to be a casual user, you will save twice as much with the 200-megabyte plan than if you went with Verizon, and chances are it will accommodate your needs.

If you start to see you're pushing the plan to its limits, you can always upgrade to the 2-gigabyte plan and still save $5 a month compared with Verizon. Plus, you can surf the Web and talk to people at the same time, for what that may be worth.

So yes, we're glad there's finally another data provider option for the iPhone, but the greater variety of options for AT&T still makes it the better value. For now.

Piet Levy's Compare and Contrast breaks down the prices and perks for products and services that college students want, and posts results on WalletPop's Money College page. Send suggestions, including items or services that you are interested in, to moneycollege@walletpop.com.

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