The United States is trapped in a 5G arms race between the Big Three carriers — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Each is rolling its own 5G technology to different territories at its own rate, and the race is far from over. However, 5G coverage isn’t nearly as far-reaching as 4G LTE. It’s mainly limited to major cities and populated areas, leaving rural communities in the dust. In fact, nearly one in five Americans live in rural areas outside of cities. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best rural carriers available in the US.
While Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are all fighting over who has the best 5G network in the States, millions of Americans are still hoping for more reliable 4G. So, if you are one of the many Americans living in a rural area outside of the country’s major cities, here are the best carrier options to keep you connected.
Best rural coverage
Fast data is great as long as you can get it, but what if you just want to stay connected? In a survey conducted throughout 2019, OpenSignal split the United States’ rural territory into three categories: fringe, distant, and remote — and connectivity is probably high on your priorities if you fall into any such group.
If you only look at 4G availability, Verizon takes the cake. Customers in remote areas spend no less than 83.5% of their time on average within 4G coverage, while customers in fringe areas spend more than 95% of their time connected to 4G.
T-Mobile nabs the silver medal with rural customers spending anywhere from 77.4% to 92.3% of their time connected to 4G. AT&T comes in third with an average connectivity time ranging from 75.5% to 88.8%. Sprint brought up the rear when OpenSignal conducted its study, though it’s now part of the T-Mobile umbrella.
OpenSignal says that many rural Americans will still have to wait several years before they see 5G connectivity. By the time 5G is enabled nationwide, these numbers will look different. Until then, Verizon has your 4G needs covered better than anyone else.
Fastest rural speeds
Availability is king, but what if the network is so slow that you want to pull your hair out? Does Verizon keep the crown or is there room for other carriers to inch back into the picture?
AT&T has the leg up as far as download speeds and latency are concerned, but T-Mobile is hot on its tail. Though Verizon comes in third for download speeds, it has the fastest upload speeds, with T-Mobile coming in second here too. Sprint once again comes in last, though it still doesn’t matter as the network is no more.
For obvious reasons, download speeds degrade as you get further from densely populated areas, but AT&T’s network remained strongest, ranging anywhere from 14.6Mbps to 20.2Mbps on average. T-Mobile ranged from 13.6Mbps to 20Mbps, Verizon ranged from 12.3Mbps to 19.5Mbps, and Sprint ranged from 9.5Mbps to 15.1Mbps.
Though upload speeds are important, they are not quite as crucial as download speeds. Users will have a better day-to-day experience with the faster download speeds on AT&T’s network. If you need faster upload speeds more than download speeds, Verizon is your best bet.
The best rural carriers
This goes without saying, but the best rural carrier is the one that meets your needs the most. No carrier is perfect, but some are worse than others. You should always do your own research before making a decision like this. We’ll break down the positives and negatives of each of the big three and offer a few alternatives if you’d rather save some money while you’re at it.
Check out this table for a quick recap of rural coverage while you’re making your decision:
|Time spent connected to 4G (%)||95.1-83.5||88.8-75.5||92.3-77.4|
|Top Download Speeds (Mbps)||19.5-12.3||20.2-14.6||20.0-13.6|
|Nationwide 4G coverage (%)||70||68||62|
|Plan cost per line (4 lines)||Play More - $45|
Do More - $45
Get More- $55
|Unlimited Starter - $35|
Unlimited Extra - $40
Unlimited Elite - $50
|Essentials - $26|
Magenta - $35
Magenta Plus - $43
If your main concern is the most 4G LTE coverage in the United States, Verizon is the way to go. The fact that even remote customers spend over 80% of their time connected to 4G service should be a relief no matter where you live.
See also: Verizon buyer’s guide
Of course, Verizon is the most expensive option of the Big Three, so you’ll have to be ready to splash the cash for top-end service. For that extra money, you’ll also get an Apple Music subscription as well as the Disney Plus, ESPN Plus, and Hulu bundle. As an unfortunate reminder that you’re looking for a rural carrier, Verizon’s mmWave 5G access is limited to around 35 cities, though the new Nationwide network has made connection significantly easier for many.
- 4G LTE coverage in 70% of the United States.
- A solid list of perks on all unlimited plans.
- Customers with a large budget who want almost-guaranteed 4G LTE access.
Verizon may have the edge over AT&T in terms of 4G LTE connection, but AT&T’s download service is actually slightly faster. It’s likely your best bet if you know that AT&T offers a solid blanket of service in your area and you want to pair it with good speeds.
See also: AT&T buyer’s guide
AT&T is also the middle option in terms of pricing — it falls almost perfectly in the middle of Verizon and T-Mobile. It tops Verizon on the 5G front as well, offering coverage in at least some sections of many midwestern states. Only the top-tier Unlimited Elite plan offers a streaming perk, and it’s HBO Max for all of your Game of Thrones needs.
- Fastest download speeds of the Big Three.
- 5G access in select parts of many states.
- Subscribers who want the best speeds and have reliable AT&T coverage in their areas.
The biggest draw for T-Mobile as a rural carrier is the fact that it’s the most affordable network of the three — but the Sprint merger certainly doesn’t hurt. Its speeds aren’t quite as fast as AT&T’s and the 4G LTE coverage isn’t as widespread as Verizon’s, but you’ll save $7 to $12 per line over the more expensive carriers.
See also: T-Mobile buyer’s guide
T-Mobile is also converting Sprint 5G locations into Un-Carrier towers, so the network is constantly growing and evolving. It’ll still be a few years before it completes the process though, so don’t use 5G as your deciding factor. You’ll also get Netflix with the Magenta plans.
- Lowest costs of the Big Three carriers.
- Speeds and connectivity that fall right in the middle of Verizon and AT&T.
- People on the hunt for a rural carrier that can help them save money.
MVNOs to consider
While the Big Three are often your best bets for nationwide coverage, there are a few MVNOs worth considering for rural service too. Instead of sticking with just one network, we tried to grab some carriers that blend the best of multiple worlds. Here are just a few of our favorites:
No matter where you live, Google Fi probably has you covered. The backbone of its service is the massive T-Mobile network, but it’s supported by US Cellular for a wider reach which makes it one of the best rural carriers around. Even better, you’ll switch seamlessly between carriers for the strongest signal anywhere you go.
See also: Google Fi buyer’s guide
Google Fi offers an unlimited plan and a flexible plan, so you can save even more money if you stick to a strict usage plan. It’s also a great pick if you plan to go abroad as the unlimited plan includes texts and data while you roam.
- Seamlessly switch between networks.
- Save money with a flexible plan.
- Users who want the best of multiple networks and plan to go abroad.
Ting, like Google Fi, relies primarily on T-Mobile and the Sprint CDMA network for coverage. However, you’ll have to select one or the other when you sign up for a plan. On the bright side, Ting is probably the way to go if you’re keeping your usage low — you’ll pay just $6 per line for access plus rates for talk, texts, and data.
It may be best to bring your own phone to Ting, especially if you have a flagship device in your pocket. You can always check out the carrier’s list of budget-friendly devices and save some money that way.
- Just $6 per line for monthly access.
- Pay as you go for talk, text, and data.
- Users who keep their talk, text, and data low and want to pay accordingly.
The last rural carrier on today’s list is Red Pocket, and it follows a similar carrier model as Ting. When you sign up for a plan, you’ll select a SIM card from any one of the Big Three as well as Sprint. That means you should have no problem grabbing whichever carrier offers the best service near you. Just be careful while you sign up as some networks offer lower data caps than others.
If you’re planning to purchase a phone on Red Pocket, iPhones are your only option. You can grab any device from the iPhone 12 family, though you may be better served to bring a device of your own.
- Choose from any of the Big Three carriers as well as the former Sprint network.
- Different carriers offer different data caps.
- Subscribers who want to choose the best network but pay a constant rate for service.