Mobile phones are so prevalent within the United States, to the point that 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone of some type, and 77 percent own a smartphone (according to Pew Internet's Mobile Fact Sheet).
Because of how these phones have been integrated into society, wireless coverage is important - so important that customers are willing to drop their wireless service provider if the provider's coverage is lackluster.
In fact, having the best cell phone coverage is becoming increasingly important to employees. According to eWeek back in early 2015, up to 74 percent expressed a willingness "to switch mobile operators to get better coverage at the office."
While you probably consider things such as customer service, smartphone selection, and options to postpay and prepay cell phone service, coverage is still king, So just which provider has the best cell phone signal strength and coverage area? That is the question I'll answer by the end of this article.
In This Guide
Compare Coverage Maps
You'll be able to review, from this point forward, our phone coverage maps to see for yourself which provider has the best cell service coverage area. However, I will research and analyze reliability and speed percentages among the four major carriers.
Verizon Coverage Map
Verizon Wireless currently sports the greatest coverage and network reliability among the four major carriers. Unfortunately, according to Bloomberg, the company is risking its quality coverage since it has unleashed its own unlimited data plan. According to Recon Analytics LLC analyst Roger Entner:
"An unlimited offer is dangerous. If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying 'the network sucks'."
However, Verizon doesn't exactly have a choice in leaving out the unlimited plan, considering the fact that its three rivals feature unlimited data plans (including family plans), which of course come with unlimited talk and text messages as well.
Nevertheless and throughout 2016, Verizon remained the undisputed champion when it comes to coverage and network reliability, sitting at a 95.2 RootScore according to RootMetrics. This score includes metro, state, and national levels. In fact, Verizon has gone so far as to launch "LTE in Rural America," which covers potentially 2.7 million users over 225,000 miles within 169 rural counties.
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In terms of speed, according to RootMetrics, Verizon comes out on top, just ahead of AT&T and T-Mobile, who boast incredible speeds on their LTE network. Even better - Verizon will be the first carrier to introduce the swift 5G network, though it is not expected to arrive for another couple of years (thanks, RCR Wireless News).
The company also boasts a network coverage of 98 percent, making it the best network in regards to coverage. However, its 4G LTE network coverage sat at 86.73 percent during 2016. Here, you'll see what I'm talking about on the Verizon Wireless coverage map.
Related: Verizon Cell Phone Plans
T-Mobile Coverage Map
T-Mobile phone coverage isn't the best, but it isn't the worst either. In fact, it's been touted as the least reliable major network, even to this day. With that being said, the T-Mobile network is known to perform better in metro areas compared to state or national areas.
In regards to coverage, T-Mobile's cell phone reception remains a little shoddy in rural areas, though it is not as unreliable now compared to previous years. That is because T-Mobile has incorporated plenty of technological advancements, such as Nationwide VoLTE, Carrier Aggregation, 4x4 Multiple Input, and Multiple Output, so we should certainly see major improvements in 2017. With RootMetrics, it has secured an overall RootScore of 81.2 and a phone service reliability RootScore of 82.5, falling behind Sprint and securing fourth place.
However, its 4G coverage percentage sat at 81.23 percent in 2016.
Related: T-Mobile Cell Phone Plans
Sprint Coverage Map
How good is the Sprint coverage? According to sources, its phone service coverage sits at 93.42 percent, making it fourth place in terms of reliability. So while 93.42 percent isn't bad - far from it - it's a smaller percentage compared to its rivals. However, Sprint also sports a reliability RootScore of 88.6, which is just above that of the T-Mobile network. Despite the differences in cell phone provider award placements, Sprint's claims of being within 1 percent of Verizon's network in terms of reliability doesn't seem to be completely true.
Sprint wireless coverage - 4G coverage, to be exact - also falls behind its rivals, as it sat at 70 percent last year. Sprint's signal strength and coverage are quite strong in urban areas, however, like T-Mobile, cell phone reception is weaker in rural areas. Unfortunately, despite its advancements in technology, this cell phone provider still falls in fourth place in terms of speed, having been awarded a 72.3 RootScore.
AT&T Coverage Map
Verizon may feature strong metrics when it comes to coverage and cell service reliability, but AT&T doesn't fall far behind. If you happen to live in a rural area, you cannot go wrong with AT&T. AT&T wireless coverage, when pertaining to 4G coverage, squeaks just ahead of T-Mobile while falling right behind Verizon as of 2016 with a coverage percentage of 82.63.
When it comes to reliability, RootMetrics provides AT&T with a RootScore of 92.4, falling just behind Verizon. The same goes for speed, and AT&T scored an 89.6. It makes sense, considering that AT&T issued the greatest amount of LTE spectrum among all carriers across the 125 metropolitan markets that were tested by RootMetrics in the second half of 2016. Because of this, AT&T's spectrum allocation provided the wireless service provider with significantly higher median download speeds.
According to the AT&T blog, the cell phone carrier is also on the trail to implement a 5G network, with plans to unveil the network around 2020. 5G provides data, talk, and text at a staggering 100x the speed of 4G LTE networks. This advancement is particularly significant as smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy and iPhone become even smarter.
So what is the AT&T wireless coverage map like? Below you'll find our coverage map of AT&T wireless service.
Related: AT&T Cell Phone Plans
An MVNO is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. These are the smaller carriers you might not see as often because their advertising budgets cannot compete with the big four.
Examples of MVNOs include:
- Boost Mobile
- Consumer Cellular
- Republic Wireless
- Straight Talk
- Virgin Mobile
- Project Fi
If you've been considering one of these providers, you already know they can save you some money but you may have concerns about coverage and cell phone signal strength. The beauty of these carriers is that they lease usage of towers from the big cell phone companies. That means you often get similar coverage at a better rate.
Some carriers use one network - for example, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile run on Sprint towers. Others lease tower use from more than one company. Consumer Cellular uses AT&T and T-Mobile, Republic Wireless uses Sprint and T-Mobile, and Straight Talk prepay cell phones run on a combination of all four of Big Telecom's towers. Before you choose an MVNO you should check their website to see about coverage in your area.
As far as options go, these providers give you virtually everything you can get from the big four. Many offer family plans as well prepay plans. If you opt for a prepay plan, you'll avoid unnecessary charges like early termination fees. Best of all, MVNOs tend to rate higher than others in terms of customer service.
Other concerns you may have include phone selection. MVNOs offer many of the same high-end options as the big four, like iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy series. While they don't all offer financing, you can get around that problem by bringing your own device. In many cases, you can simply buy a new SIM card from the company to replace your old carrier's SIM card. Want to keep your phone number? No problem. U.S. law allows you to bring your phone number with you.
Related: Who is the Best Cell Phone Carrier?
Among the data I've come across issued by resources like RootMetrics and provider sites, I've concluded that Verizon has the best cell phone coverage. With this provider supplying users with 98 percent of total coverage and 86.73 percent of 4G coverage, it's no wonder people are still attached to the service. What falls in second place in terms of coverage and reliability is AT&T, trailing just behind Verizon as it provides sufficient coverage in rural areas.
Sprint and T-Mobile come in last of the big four. T-Mobile, in third place, features a strong network in metro areas and while its technology is constantly improving, its network in rural areas is still a little lackluster. Sprint trails last behind its competitors. While its network is generally strong in metro areas, the coverage and reliability in rural areas aren't as robust. As long as you don't live in a remote area, however, Sprint and T-Mobile provide solid cell phone service.
Of course, coverage and reliability are constantly changing among the four carriers. With the implementation of unlimited plans featuring family plans with unlimited talk time and endless text messages, we may see changes within the networks. Hopefully, if there are changes, they will be more positive, not negative.
If you're unsure of what provider to go with, even after taking a look at the coverage, then perhaps you should read our review of the best cell phone plans. If you're worried about how to switch cell phone carriers after you've found a new carrier with better coverage, we'll walk you through the steps.