Chances are your cellphone service runs on one of the four largest mobile networks in the United States - Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, or T-Mobile. The problem is that all four of these providers do their best to convince you their LTE network is the fastest and best cellphone network out there.
The truth is that no matter whose cell towers you use you're likely to get pretty reliable service with high speeds for browsing the web, streaming music, and watching high-definition video.
But what about things like network coverage and plan costs? If you're trying to figure out which network is better between AT&T and T-Mobile you're in the right place. I'm going to give you the lowdown on coverage and tell you how to save money while enjoying great service on whichever network you choose.
Network Coverage Comparison
When it comes to coverage, which is on top: T-Mobile or AT&T? After all, you need coverage in order to make calls or use your data. And there are plenty of instances where you may need both. Lost in a desert? You will need your GPS, which requires data. Taking a cross-country trip and want to stream video for the kids? You'll need cell reception. This overview should help you figure out which network is better for your needs.
T-Mobile USA is no slouch in the mobile industry. The Uncarrier took five of the six mobile network awards given by OpenSignal in 2017. Average download speeds of 19.4 Mbps make the network the fastest 4G LTE service available.
As far as coverage, the T-Mobile LTE network is incredibly strong and reliable in urban areas. Reception and speed have suffered a bad rap in rural areas, however, T-Mobile is making significant strides toward improving the situation. In fact, as Spectrum Gateway shows, the company is in the process of expanding its coverage on a large scale.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Spotty areas through the South and Northeast
- Large portions of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada
- Streaks down the east and northwest areas of California
Many of the weak areas on the T-Mobile coverage map are rural and largely unpopulated. Others fall within the range of new coverage T-Mobile is deploying.
Lastly, as far as reliability, T-Mobile customers get a 4G LTE signal 93.1% of the time (as opposed to 3G speeds), putting the network in the top spot for LTE access.
AT&T coverage is extensive, no doubt about it. The network does have some weak areas in the west, as do all the carriers, with some of those areas being covered by 3G service from third-party networks.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Northern Montana
- Central Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada, and Idaho
- Western New Mexico
- Northern Arizona
- Northwestern California
Overall, AT&T's LTE coverage is strong, with its users getting a 4G LTE signal 86.9% of the time.
T-Mobile takes the win in speed between these two networks with AT&T the victor in overall LTE coverage.
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How to Switch to a Big Network without Paying Big Prices
Whether you settle on the AT&T or T-Mobile network you may be under the impression that you're stuck paying those specific carriers' rates.
What if I told you that you can have mobile service on these reliable networks without the high plan costs? Small carriers called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) give you that very option.
Not only are these alternative providers widely available, they're on a sharp rise. According to Allied Market Research there are over 100 MVNOs in North America and the market is set to grow more than 10% by 2023.
Benefits of MVNOs:
- Cheaper prices - MVNOs buy the use of the big four networks and resell no-contract plans to you at a deep discount.
- No commitment or contracts means no early termination fees.
- You can keep your phone and your number.
- Custom plans - buy only the minutes, texts, and amount of data you need.
- Easy to sign up - typically everything is done online.
- Alternative mobile carriers have the highest customer satisfaction ratings.
Next we'll look at a few of the plans offered by AT&T MVNOs vs. T-Mobile MVNOs.
AT&T vs. T-Mobile MVNO Plan Comparison
Wireless plans from smaller providers vary just as much as - if not more than - those from the big four. You've got a multitude of options.
Cheap Cellphone Plans
Are you shopping for basic service like a senior cell phone plan or maybe an emergency phone for a child? Here are a couple examples of affordable cell plans:
- Mint Mobile (T-Mobile): Unlimited talk and text, 2 GB high-speed data - $15
- ROK Mobile (AT&T): Unlimited talk and text, 1 GB high-speed data - $20
Most MVNOs work on a prepaid basis. This allows you to ensure that you don't have any unexpected data overages, taxes and fees at the end of the month. Here are examples of AT&T vs. T-Mobile prepaid plans.
- US Mobile (T-Mobile): 1000 minutes, unlimited text messaging, 3 GB 4G data - $30
- ROK Mobile (AT&T): Unlimited calling and texting, plus 4 GB 4G data - $30
Unlimited Data Plans
Do you burn through data like crazy? Save money on unlimited data plans by shopping alternative wireless carriers.
- Ultra Mobile (T-Mobile): Unlimited talk, texts, and 4G LTE data, plus free international calling credit - $49 (throttled data speeds are possible after 30 GB of data at LTE speed is used in one billing cycle)
- US Mobile (AT&T): Unlimited talk, text, and 4G LTE data - $46 (data throttled after 12 GB of 4G data used)
Pro Tip: The average data usage of smartphone owners is less than 4 GB per month. Check out our data calculator to see if you really need an unlimited plan.
It's true that most MVNOs don't offer a traditional family cellphone plan. However - their rates are so much cheaper than other carriers that you'll typically save a ton of money even with multiple lines.
- Ting (T-Mobile): Multiple lines share talk, text messaging, and data package. For example, two lines at $6/each per month plus 1,000 minutes, 2000 text messages, 6 GB data - $98
- Red Pocket (AT&T): Four lines, unlimited talk, and text, 3 GB 4G LTE data each - $120 (talk, text, and data are not shared - each line is separate)
These are just a few of the options offered by AT&T MVNOs and T-Mobile MVNOs. There are many levels of customization available within the various plans making it easy to pay only for what you actually use.
Read More: You can also compare the prepaid plans among all major providers.
Now we know MVNOs offer cheap cellular service. But that's not all that matters - you want attentive and effective customer support as well. How do MVNOs measure up?
You may be surprised to learn that not only do alternative carriers hold up to the big guys when it comes to taking care of you, they actually beat out the major carriers. In Consumer Reports' 2017 Cell-Phone Service Survey, Consumer Cellular, Project Fi, and Ting took the top three positions for consumer satisfaction, reliability, and customer support.
Once you've chosen either the T-Mobile or AT&T network you'll need to decide what device to use. Some MVNOs offer new phones for sale, however, this is seldom a cost-effective option.
It may be time to change the way you think about your smartphone. New flagship models like the Samsung Galaxy come out every year or so, but do you really need the newest upgrade every single time it comes out?
Changes to models are typically slight, yet these devices range from $400-$1,000 - that's a big investment when your phone probably has at least a couple more years left in it.
Benefits of BYOP (bring your own phone):
- Save up to $30 a month per line on device payments
- Easily swap SIM cards out to switch carriers
- Reduce waste
- Keep flexibility - not tied to a carrier to whom you owe monthly installments
Just make sure your device is unlocked. Check out our guide on how to unlock your phone.
Buying a used phone offers similar advantages, along with the ability to save up to 50% off the cost of your device. Companies like Decluttr and BuyBackWorld make it simple to not only get a quality smartphone but also sell your current one.
There's no longer any reason to pay exorbitant fees to stay on the best cell phone network regardless of whether you decide that's AT&T or T-Mobile.
Here are the key takeaways:
- Make sure you're getting the features you want, like LTE mobile hotspot data, unlimited music streaming, HD video streaming, or international plans.
- Easily check your phone's compatibility on your chosen MVNO's website.
- Sign up for auto-pay - it typically saves you $5 per month per line.
Finally, use our comparison tool to find a cheap cell phone plan.