If you've ever seen a commercial for wireless service then you know that the rivalries between the major cell phone providers are fierce.
Being constantly badgered by cellphone advertisements only achieves one thing: confusion. With all of the competition, it can be tough to decide on the best choice for your mobile service needs.
What you may not know is that if you're weighing the pros and cons of AT&T vs. Sprint there are plenty of cheap cell phone plans available on both of these networks. In this guide, I'm going to clarify each network's strengths and tell you how to get the best deal on your talk, text, and data.
Network Coverage Comparison
You want reliable service that keeps you talking, texting, and streaming music. How do you make sure you get just that?
There are a few things to consider when you look at a wireless network coverage map:
- Percentage of 4G LTE coverage vs. 3G speeds
- Where you spend the most time
- Areas to which you travel frequently
When a wireless carrier says they cover a certain percentage of the U.S., keep in mind that what that number actually refers to is the percent of populated areas which they serve. It doesn't include extremely remote areas with low or no human population.
The AT&T network maintains a close second to Verizon in coverage, speed, and reliability. The carrier earned the top spot for text reliability in the 2017 mobile performance assessment by RootMetrics.
OpenSignal, which uses crowd-sourced data in its State of the Mobile Network report, found that users on the AT&T network get a 4G LTE signal about 87% of the time. Although this puts them in third place among the big four networks it's important to remember that there are only a few percentage points separating each carrier.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Middle/western Nebraska
- Middle/northern Montana
- Northern Arizona
- Southern/northwestern Nevada
- Southeastern/central western Utah
- Central western New Mexico
- Central Idaho
- Spotty areas throughout California
- Spotty areas throughout Oregon and Washington
- Spotty areas in Maine
For the most part, these areas are minor and largely unpopulated. Still, it's important to examine the areas where you'll need to use your cellphone on a regular basis.
There's no way around it - Sprint trails AT&T in virtually every aspect of cell coverage. That doesn't mean the Sprint network is wrong for you, however. All four of the major carriers are very close in quality and coverage, meaning the Sprint network is still a very competitive choice.
RootMetrics gives Sprint an overall rating of 87.9 compared to AT&T at 92.9. Sprint users experience a 4G LTE connection 85.7% of the time, less than two percent below AT&T's 87%.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Large portions of the Midwest and West, from the Dakotas to Nevada
- Non-metropolitan areas of California
- Widespread spotty areas throughout the middle South and New England
Sprint's strong point is its strong LTE network in large metropolitan areas. The network excels in highly populated locales, with less reliable wireless coverage throughout the Great Plains and western states.
Related: Who Has the Best Cell Phone Coverage?
How to Switch to a Big Network without Paying Big Prices
Once you've decided on whether the AT&T or Sprint network is right for you the next order of business is finding a great deal on your cell service.
Believe it or not, there's a way to stay on the same great network you love without paying premium prices. By going with a smaller, alternative carrier you can enjoy the coverage you need at lower rates.
These carriers are called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs. You might know a few of them, like Boost Mobile, MetroPCS, US Mobile, etc. MVNOs lease usage of the big four networks' towers and resell it to you at a discount.
Benefits of using a MVNO:
- No contracts or early termination fees
- Bring your own device and phone number
- Lower prices
- Customizable plans that let you pay only for what you need
- Simple to switch by ordering a SIM card online
- Solid customer support, often available seven days a week
MVNOs bring a whole new level of choice to the cellular service game - with the consumer coming out the big winner.
Sprint vs. AT&T Plan Comparison
Now that you know you don't have to pay brand-name prices for brand-name service you're probably wondering how much you will pay and what you'll get for your money.
Here's a look at some of the best plans for phone service on the AT&T and Sprint networks. Whether you need a single line, multiple lines, unlimited calling, or unlimited LTE data, there's a carrier and plan for you.
Cheap Cell Phone Plans
Sticking to the basics can save you a ton of money on your monthly phone bill.
- TPO (Sprint): 500 minutes, 500 texts, 250 MB 4G data - $10
- ROK Mobile (AT&T): Unlimited calling and texts, 1 GB 4G data - $20
MVNOs are often pay-as-you-go or prepaid plans, eliminating overage fees. Your monthly bill includes taxes and fees, so you have won't have any surprise charges after the fact.
- Tello (Sprint): Unlimited talk and text, 3 GB 4G data - $24
- ROK Mobile (AT&T): Unlimited talk, unlimited texting, 4 GB 4G data - $30
Unlimited Data Plans
- Boost Mobile (Sprint): Unlimited talk, texting and data, and 8 GB mobile hotspot data - $50
- Cricket Wireless (AT&T): Unlimited talk, text, and 4G data - $40 (a note on Cricket - this carrier keeps data capped at 8 Mbps for download speeds)
The important thing to keep in mind here is that the average smartphone owner uses less than 4 GB of data per month. Use our handy data usage calculator to check the amount of data you actually need. You can likely save money by going with a smaller plan.
Pro Tip: Even if a plan says it offers unlimited data, most providers throttle your data speed if you exceed a set amount of high-speed data per month (typically around 22 GB).
Alternative carriers do offer some options when it comes to multiple lines on your cell plan.
- $6 per month per line
- Minutes and text messages starting at $3 per 100
- $10 per GB of high-speed data
Everything is shared across your lines, with the ability to customize which devices get how much of each.
Consumer Cellular (AT&T):
- First line free, additional line $15
- Minutes - $15 for 250, $20 for unlimited
- Text messages - unlimited included with the data package
- Data - 250 MB to 10 GB, $5 to $40 per month
Consumer Cellular offers family plans with more than two lines, you just need to call their customer service line for details.
So - alternative carriers have competitive coverage and great prices. But how do they compare to Sprint and AT&T in the customer care arena?
The verdict is in - smaller carriers are stomping the big four in terms of customer satisfaction. In fact, the top three spots in the Consumer Reports 2017 Cell-Phone Service Survey went to Consumer Cellular, Project Fi, and Ting.
This annual report from CS measures how happy consumers are with a cell phone company's customer support, reliability, and overall customer satisfaction. Many alternative carriers offer more personalized service at lower rates.
No matter what your decision on which is better, AT&T or Sprint, if you go with a MVNO you will need to decide on a phone.
The best way to save money on a smartphone is to keep your existing device or buy a used phone. Some alternative carriers sell devices, but your current phone probably has a lot more life in it than you think.
If you really want or need to upgrade, go to the next model up in a secondhand device. You can save up to 50% or more on next-to-new models by comparing prices from that major refurbished phone sellers.
How much can you save?
Let's look at the cost of iPhones:
- New iPhone 8 through a carrier: $700
- Refurbished iPhone 7 with 32-month warranty through Decluttr: $365
iPhone not your thing? You can easily find similar deals on Androids as well, like the Samsung Galaxy series.
The best part? You can sell your current phone for more than your carrier will give you on trade-in and have even more money to put toward another.
Here are a couple of last-minute tips before you make the switch:
- If you're bringing your own phone with you, make sure it's unlocked. Check out our guide on how to unlock your phone.
- Shop around for the best fit - do you need calling to Canada and Mexico? Is HD video streaming important to you? Make sure the carrier you choose offers the add-ons you need.
- Remember to check device compatibility on the carrier website.
- You can typically save more by signing up for auto pay.
Due to the influx of alternative carrier plans in the mobile marketplace, you are no longer restricted to choosing among four (expensive!) cell providers.
With MVNOs providing service on the most reliable networks in the United States, there's no reason not to take advantage of the incredible savings they offer on plan costs.
Finally, we make finding the right plan easy. Compare cheap cell phone plans side-by-side.