U.S. National Carrier Plan Price Showdown! [Spreadsheet]

April 27, 2011

Real Cost Vs. Upfront Cost

Have you thought about what it’s really costing you to have your favorite smartphone over the two years you’re under contract? Most people don’t do the math, and would probably be surprised to know there are carriers where you can pinch some pennies, and in some cases, hundreds of dollars. This article is all about offering you a price breakdown, showing the options you have if you’re on an Individual Plan. I’ll cover Family Plans at a later date.

For this comparison, I chose to use a phone that spans across almost all the national carriers, the LG Optimus One. This is a very nice mid-grade handset that we happen to be doing a in depth review on next week, specifically the Virgin Mobile Optimus V. I wont go into an overview of the handset right now, but will tell you that the Optimus V is a great phone, and that it is more than enough to be the only smart-phone in your pocket.

Also, note that not all plans are created equal. Overall, AT&T had to be the worst deal, simply because of the restriction of being a 2 GB data plan combined with being the 2nd most expensive overall. There have been months that I’ve used 5 GB in the first week of the month. So AT&T definitely wouldn’t work for me. Do remember though – AT&T is the only national carrier that is fully compatible with unlocked GSM phones with global frequency bands. But once AT&T acquires T-Mobile, they’re planning on converting the 1700 MHz AWS bands to their 4G LTE frequency, so they will no longer be fully compatible with global unlocked devices. Also choosing their plans is very difficult in comparison to other carriers, as they do things a la carte, breaking each piece into separate options which makes things overly complex.

Speaking of T-Mobile, it really is too bad that the most restrictive carrier(AT&T), when it comes to the amount of data provided,  is going to be buying T-Mobile. I understand that it definitely would be the best suitor due to compatible GSM technologies, but this really is a sad day for the competitiveness of the US cellular carrier market. T-Mobile is tied with Sprint for being the best monthly price of the postpaid carriers. So we’ll have one of the most expensive carriers consuming one of the cheapest carriers, and this is good for the American public how? But leaving the buyout out of this, T-Mobile has consistently been the first and biggest supporter of Android. They’ve been the carrier to carry the first Android phone , the G1, the second phone the myTouch 3G, and subsequently the Google Nexus One, Google Nexus S, the G2 the vanilla Android version of the Desire Z, and the LG Optimus 2x as the G2x with its vanilla Froyo Android. It’ll be sad to see Androids closest US carrier ally being consumed by AT&T – a company that won’t even let you side load apps without rooting.

So what’s the best deal?

One of the nicest layouts is Sprint’s (postpaid, and prepaid) all inclusive plans, as they’re very easy to choose and very economical. They’re tied with T-Mobile for having the best monthly price of plans. But, they are the only CDMA / WiMAX carrier around, which brings into play a precarious situation of future handset availability. They have a good selection of Android phones right now with the Evo 4G, Epic 4G, Echo, and Optimus S. In a short amount of time they will be adding the Google Nexus S, Motorola Atrix, and the HTC Evo 3D, which certainly affirms their commitment to Android. But, like I mentioned before, one frustration is that you need to toggle 4G on to get WiMAX speeds. Sprints prepaid arms really are the diamonds in the rough of this comparison; Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile really are the best deals and can save you boat loads of cash. So much cash can they save you that if you switched to Virgin from Verizon you could buy three (and then some extras too) $399 Asus Eee Pad Transformer’s over two years. Let me say that again for effect – THREE Tablets difference!

Now let’s look at Verizon. Overall, they are the most expensive in terms of  monthly cost in postpaid and prepaid. But they have the best coverage with their EVDO network and they have a newly expanding LTE footprint. They also have the best high end Android handset offerings with the Droid 2 Global, Droid X, Thunderbolt 4G($250), Droid Charge 4G($300), and the upcoming LG Revolution 4G, Droid X2, and Droid Bionic. So if money matters nothing to you, choose Verizon and one of their awesome high end handsets.

Speed Matters?

There used to be a difference in the actual speeds that you could get from the carriers, and the 3G label made it sound like a standard that all four large carriers were giving you the same service. But, in reality EVDO was only able to deliver an actual speed of approx 700Kbps – 1.0Mbps, while T-Mobile and AT&T’s HSPA networks were doing approx 5.0Mbps. So even though both technologies were deemed to be “3G”, HSPA speed was quite a bit higher. But, now that all the carriers have stepped up their games, speeds have risen dramatically. Sprint was the first to the 4G game by offering their WiMAX network with real world performance in the 5-8Mbps range. Then, T-Mobile started calling their 14.4Mbps HSPA network “4G speeds” due to the fact that the handsets on their network were seeing real world speeds of 5-9Mbps which was comperable to Sprints WiMAX network.  AT&T followed suit with their 14.4Mbps network being labeled 4G as well. Verizon launched their LTE network recently, which gives real world speeds in the 2.0-20.0Mbps range, but that is all depending on your area. In the mean time, T-Mobile has upgraded their network to 21Mbps which is giving real world speeds in the mid teens, and they have recently announced an upgrade to 42Mbps that is currently underway. Either way, all carriers are easily fast enough for any smart-phone, unless you’re planning on tethering your computer to them and playing some First Person Shooters which require very low latency. Its a pretty much level playing field at this point.

Other Points to Consider

The last thing I want to point out is the “Special Plans” I have listed. There are two ways to save some money right now, one is Boost Mobiles “Shrinkage” on their $50 per month unlimited plans. If you pay on time for 6 months, your plan drops $5 for the subsequent months. You can do this over and over, three times in total. This will bring your monthly bill down to $35 per month in a span of 18 months.  The second special plan is that, right now, T-Mobile is offering their normally $99 Unlimited everything plan for $79. This can save some good money in the long run if you’re not using more than 2GB per month. After 2GB per month T-Mobile claims they will throttle your connection speed. Honestly though, I have a myTouch 4G which at the best of times has seen a 9.0Mbps connection speed, and even after reaching my current plans 5GB limit before I get throttled, I was still topping out at 7.0Mbps. So if 7.0Mbps is a penalty, I’ll take it.

Thanks for checking out this comparison, I hope I’m able to help save you guys some money. Try jumping to a cheaper carrier to afford some of the awesome Honeycomb tablets coming out. So, how many of you are planning on saving some cash?

High Res Spreadsheet here

Comments

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z4CJFSWSF6NJQ2QO56FEBHKHJM K

    Thanks a ton for this article – I’ve been contemplating a smartphone but can’t afford a typical smartphone plan… I barely use my phone as a phone as it is (and have already picked up Google Talk to transcribe my voicemail messages).

    ….Honestly, I really just want a data plan without the need to add text messages or voice minutes :-(

    …but back to topic, your article was really helpful.

  • loolzzz

    dick