Cutthroat competition is always a funny thing, but the game is even odder when it comes to wireless providers. The truth is that even though customers are likely to complain about dropped calls and horrible customer service, they are unlikely to switch to another provider. Why? The simple truth is that because wireless service is such a dizzying equation of factors ranging from price to coverage to contracts, the bottom line can seem elusive. Here, we put a few of the top players head to head to make things a little simpler.
T-Mobile vs. AT&T
Here’s a grudge match if there ever was one, with both providers gunning hard for the same consumer dollars with aggressive incentive packages. To kick off this year, T-Mobile unveiled its attractive UnCarrier 4.0 “program”: a bribe of an impressive $650 maximum to make the leap from another carrier. Almost simultaneously, AT&T counter punched with a similar offer of up to $450 to change teams. On the surface, it sounds as if T-Mobile has the upper hand, but when you remember that the “up to” clause in the fine print is contingent on how swanky your mobile trade-in will be, the math isn’t so simple in deciding between T-Mobile’s JUMP and AT&T’s Next upgrade programs.
Indeed, it’s a close call between these two, and in the end the decision here may ride upon the needs of individual consumers. Both providers offer comparable coverage, but AT&T commands a few more towers in the deep South. For a bare-bones data plan of 500 MB, AT&T can’t touch T-Mobile’s paltry $40 per month, but the story changes when T-Mobile customers climb towards double digits of gigabyte data. Though the specs are neck and neck, however, AT&T comes out slightly on top.
AT&T vs. Sprint Nextel
In this heat, it’s all about speed, and with its impressive Spark network, Sprint truly lives up to its name. In a showdown using the Galaxy Mega smartphone, Sprint hit the track at Prefontaine speeds of 12.7 Mbps for downloads — almost four times the download speed of AT&T. However, when it came to uploads, Sprint stumbled at the gates, offering only 1.67 Mbps to AT&T’s 5.17.
Except in the arena of uploading, Sprint is the clear winner in speed wars, but what about price? Again, Sprint comes down from the top turnbuckle and serves AT&T a plate of hot punishment. The best illustration of Sprint’s competitive pricing comes in comparing unlimited plans. Sprint’s Simply Everything plan makes good in its name, giving customers unlimited talk, text, and data for a $99 flat rate. AT&T’s Nation Unlimited, on the other hand, begins $30 higher for a basic unlimited plan that doesn’t even cover texting.
Overall coverage is comparable, with slight regional advantages. Again, AT&T isn’t whistling Dixie in service below the Mason-Dixon line, but Sprint kills it on the Eastern Seaboard. All in all, Sprint comes out of the ring with its hands in the air.
NetZero vs. AT&T and T-Mobile
Our new contender here might seem to have appeared out of nowhere, but NetZero has merely clawed its way out of the dustbin of forgotten technological memories. Way back when in the Clinton Era, NetZero made waves by unveiling the first free dial-up internet service, and now the company is making itself relevant once again by providing free 4G service. Well, sort of.
The free service in question comes when you buy a combination of NetZero’s two new mobile wireless devices: a $99 NetZero hotspot and an accompanying 4G stick, which retails at $40.95, that provides your laptop with 4G service. Once you buy these devices, you’ll be given 200MB of free data every month.
The problem is that 200MB of data is almost nothing and users will exceed that limit after visiting only a handful of websites a day–making the “free service” a fairly nominal attention-grabber. And yet NetZero still provides competitive prices once you exceed that modest limitation, offering multiple data plans very similar to both AT&T and T-Mobile. What’s more, unlike those last two companies, NetZero is contract-free and lets you pay as you go. But given the slower speeds you should currently expect from NetZero, this showdown is a close tie.
Sprint vs. Verizon
Sadly, sports fans, there’s no ninth-inning nail biting on offer here. For all its speed, Sprint is no match for Verizon’s secret weapon: the best coverage around. Even in urban areas, Sprint is notorious for dropping calls, while Verizon can usually hold the line even in the most fly-by of areas with its much-lauded In-Network. Indeed, Verizon seems to be designed for the on-the-go cosmopolitan consumer, with ample towers in all time zones and no roaming charges to boot.
The price war is a bit trickier in this pairing. While Sprint is ten dollars cheaper for a standard data plan of 1GB, the pricing model is complicated because Verizon offers the most stratified plans in relation to data needs, so here it might just be a case of how much bandwidth you need. However, with its blitzkrieg of coverage, Verizon wins.
With its recent mergers and innovative tech, Sprint may shake the game up in the near future, however. And it’s more than a safe bet that the Big Four will be rolling out myriad pricing schemes, upgrades, and other enticements to get that cutting edge. Verizon may be on top of the battle for now, but the wireless war rages on.
Camille McClane is an online journalist with a passion for developing technology for business. As a contributor to the CertificationKits blog, she also enjoys covering the topics of Cisco products and other computer repair-related subjects.