Speed Isn't Everything: How To Pick the Best Phone Carrier For YouNow that Apple (AAPL) is out with the new iPhone 4S and Google (GOOG) and Samsung are preparing to launch the new Galaxy Nexus smartphone, customers are weighing their carrier options.

Most moved to Verizon (VZ) last quarter. The Big Red carrier added 882,000 post-paid (i.e., retail) subscribers last quarter, more than double the 319,000 AT&T (T) added over the same period. Sprint Nextel (S) lost 44,000 post-paid subscribers the third quarter.

Yet just because Verizon is winning the war now doesn't mean it will keep winning. What suits one user won't necessarily be right for another.

Even though they've all ratcheted up speeds, there are material differences between networks. Here are tips on picking the right one for your habits.

All Wireless Broadband Is Not Equal

There are various technologies for transmitting data wirelessly. Let's get geeky for a second and compare.

Super-fast wireless network services such as HSPA, WiMAX, and LTE mean most users who adopt a smartphone are likely to get fast data downloads and decent voice reception. I say "likely" because many people have been plagued by dropped iPhone calls.

Of the three, HSPA is slowest. That's not necessarily bad. By using multiple antennas, an HSPA network can deliver data at 22 megabits per second to a mobile device -- on par with most networked home computers.

AT&T has used HSPA to deliver high speed 3G while building out a faster network. Verizon at one time used an even slower standard called EV-DO as it rolled out its own LTE implementation.

WiMAX has been around longer than HSPA and is a lot like Wi-Fi. The difference? Whereas Wi-Fi signals tend to travel 100 feet, WiMAX is designed to deliver data over miles. Sprint Nextel was an early backer of WiMAX and still has a partnership with Clearwire (CLWR) for delivering data this way.

Finally, there's LTE, which stands for Long-Term Evolution and is the latest flavor du jour for all three carriers. LTE is purported to not only be simpler and cheaper for carriers to deploy, but is also capable of delivering data wirelessly at 100 megabits per second -- five times faster than HSPA and three times faster than the hardwired Comcast connection at my home office.

The LTE-est speed demon technology
LTE is the technology that promises you it's OK to stream movies to your phone.

Verizon was first to deploy LTE here in the United States and is on track to have service in 178 domestic markets by the end of November, which may explain why it added more subscribers in Q3.

AT&T is in the process of rolling out new cities now. Those in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Atlanta either already are or soon will be eligible for LTE service.

Sprint still has WiMAX and is in the very early stages of deploying LTE through Clearwire and a start-up called LightSquared. The process could take a while, however. Federal Communications Commission research suggests that LightSquared's LTE technology may interfere with GPS signals.

Which carrier is for you?
Interestingly, chasing LTE may not be your best bet when it comes to choosing a carrier. Each one is going to carry great handsets with unique advantages. So start with what matters most to you -- speed, coverage, or a killer data plan.

1. Speed = AT&T. Old Ma Bell isn't so stodgy when it comes to giving users fast access to videos, apps, games, and the like. Yes, Verizon's 4G is still going to be faster, but if you follow that most users are either looking at or have iPhones -- and the iPhone doesn't yet support LTE -- then AT&T's network is about as fast as you'll get.

2. Coverage = Verizon. On the other hand, if you're willing to opt for an LTE-ready Android handset such as HTC's popular Thunderbolt, Verizon's national coverage beats anything offered by AT&T or Sprint. Some estimates put Verizon's national 4G LTE coverage at 186 million people. Wowsa.

3. Data = Sprint. Neither AT&T nor Verizon is willing to offer an unlimited data plan for fear that a handful of heavy users will slow the overall network to a crawl. Sprint isn't as concerned and is pricing plans that include unlimited data for as little as $69 per month. If you're going to be checking email, YouTube, Facebook and more while on the go, an unlimited data plan might suit you best. Just be warned that, for iPhone 4S owners, Sprint's network is delivering slower than the U.S. Postal Service.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple and Google at the time of publication. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Apple, and AT&T and creating a bull call spread position in Apple.



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15 Comments

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Shawna Smith

I don't use any of these carriers. I have a carrier that pays me for referring people and I get my service free now. My services is 4G Unlimited Everything (talk, text and data). It was $49/mo before I referred 9 people and now my service is free. http://www.nixyourcellbill.com

October 10 2012 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
foxylynx

I have Verizon and am happy with them.

October 31 2011 at 9:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
AC

Only problem is most people don't have Iphones as the writer states. Apple is the single largest brand sold, but most phones sold are of different brands. And with the resent issues with the 4s including battery problems cause by iO5,. it will probably stay that way for a while.

October 28 2011 at 2:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
SONONITALIANO

funny that this person writing this article felt it necessary to take a jab at the postal service..if anything were to happen to electronic communications, where else can you send a letter from new jersey to hawaii for 44 cents? and by the way..when i mail a letter, its usually there the next day or two, no matter where...anyone who doesnt think that all this electronic lifestyle wont crash eventually..well i have a bridge in brooklyn to sell you

October 28 2011 at 1:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Doug

AT&T is the slowest carrier - proven by multiple tests completed by Consumer Reports. Lowest-rated customer service and high prices

Verizon- Great coverage, high-priced plans and equal 4G coverage to Sprint

Sprint - Consumer Reports rated Sprint equal to Verizon, but Sprint's pricing is about $30/month cheaper than VZ. If you have a smartphone, you should use Sprint. JD Power rates Sprint #1 for Overall Satisfaction.

Tmobile- Good for families who only use talk and text and don't travel much - very limited 3G coverage.

October 28 2011 at 1:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Lucy

Sprint really has me pissed off, Just got the iphone S but no service inside my home so I have to outside and freeze my a$$ off to make a call! I have call them several times and getting the same story over and over, we have problems with the tower near you, we got engineers working on it blah, blah, blah!! I am about to to stick their Iphone up where the sun don't shine!! Funny thing is, my husband has the EVO And no problem with his! SPRINT HAS THE WORST CUSTOMER SERVICE EVER!!

October 28 2011 at 12:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
anthonygolfbones

I have AT&T and their service is terrible and if you think you are going to deal with a live person forget it, and don't call on the weekends or holidays. The service is so bad that I am paying 400 dollars in penalty fee's for cancelling my service before the contract expired. I wiuldn't recomend AT&T to my worst enemy.

October 28 2011 at 12:32 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to anthonygolfbones's comment
grgriff98

Good luck getting to somebody in the united states when you call customer service. I got some idiot in India who could only read from her script and was clueless. But hey at least at&t is saving money by outsourcing to India.

October 29 2011 at 2:16 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
nnanciejean

I've had Verizon for a couple of years and am very happy. The reception is great no matter where I am and I have virtually no dropped calls...and I live in the country. Their customer service has always been great. They speak English and you get a live person.

October 28 2011 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
etssms

Bottom line is in my opinion they all stink, they all have their plus and minus.. I priced a Sprint vs Verizon plan. Verizon was $60 a month more (Same plan) $1400 over 2 years. Not worth it. They all have areas where there is no service, and dropped calls. I have AT&T and cant wait to get rid of them.They are horrible!! Also currently have T-Mobile, good up until now. Must be the AT&T influence. If nothing more, its Verizon or Sprint. Stay away from AT&T!!. Some good sources for information, Root Metrics, PC Mag.

October 28 2011 at 12:14 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
ROBERT

For me, it is about service and attitude. I can look at the end (less than half mile) of my street and see a brand new Verizon cell tower but can not get a single bar unless I stand in certain places in my back yard. In the house, forget it. When talking to Verizon sales rep, I get well you should get good reception but we do not guarantee service. Best is "We will sell/sign you up for a new phone to test it out but if it does not work you must pay a restocking fee." I say to forget it, I will do without Verizon and check the competition. Maybe but from what I have been reading they all are about the same.....

October 28 2011 at 12:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ROBERT's comment
Scotty143124

Um, that means it's wither not a verizon tower or your handset is crappy.

Verizon with 1 bar can easily complete a call, something not possible with AT&T or Sprint.

October 28 2011 at 3:33 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply