The Four Major US Carriers: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint – Which is Best for RVers & Cruisers?

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Q: Which is best for RVers, cruisers and frequent travelers?

A: The one that works best at your current location...

Cellular data is probably the easiest and most accessible option for getting online in most places across the USA.

But as simple as it can seem on paper, cellular is also sometimes a confusing subject – primarily because there are just so many options!

You have to choose which carrier(s) you want, which plans make sense, what equipment to purchase, and how much speed and data you actually need.

If you live in one location and only travel occasionally, it’s relatively easy to pick the best cellular carrier.

Obviously, you go with the one that you’ve observed to have the best service within your area.

You can ask your friends and neighbors for experience, check the carrier's coverage maps and you can check crowd sourced coverage maps like http://www.sensorly.com, http://www.rootmetrics.com/us/  or http://opensignal.com .

While there might be an obvious “best” network for a given neighborhood, frequent travelers have a harder choice to make... our location changes, often!

There simply is no single network that works best everywhere.

All of the big four nationwide carriers have their strengths and weaknesses in various locations across the country. And each offers different plans & policies that make them more or less suitable as a mobile internet solution depending on your needs.

 

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As a frequent traveler, you need to consider what carrier - or more than likely, combination of carriers - will give you coverage and data in the places you want to visit.

This article is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the four major carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint) in the US as they relate to mobile internet for RVers, cruisers and frequent travelers seeking an on-the-go home internet replacement.


The sections included in this guide: 


Video Overview

We created a 22 minute video that overviews the four carriers - be sure to check below for the latest on plan details.

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Coverage

All four have embraced the same underlying fourth-generation (4G) cellular network technology, known as LTE. But they all have very different legacy 2G and 3G networks, coverage maps, compatible devices, supported frequency bands, and expansion plans going forward towards 5G.

The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is nationwide. And for those relying on mobile internet, 4G & LTE coverage are the most important for the fastest speeds.

In the US, the four major nationwide carriers are:

  • Verizon - has the most nationwide coverage, but their most attractive plans can be more difficult to get.
  • AT&T - close second to Verizon, and currently has the most accessible and usable unlimited plan.
  • T-Mobile - the carrier to watch with a rapidly expanding network and usable unlimited data plans.
  • Sprint -  coverage generally only useful when close to bigger cities and along interstates, but has attractive plan options.

Below is a quick comparison of the four carrier's 4G coverage maps:

Screenshots above taken from the October 2017 release of our app Coverage?
- showing just 4G and better coverage for each carrier.

Although we can go to each carrier’s maps online to scout out ahead if our next location will have coverage for our carriers, we decided to make it even easier. We wrote an app for that!

coverage_new_iconCoverage? (available for iOS and Android) overlays our versions of the four major carriers maps, so you can create a personalized coverage map for the carriers you travel with, and plan your travels around connectivity!

Coverage? Lite is also available on iOS as a free trial.

The maps are stored on device, so you don’t need to have coverage to find out which direction to head to find coverage.
Get it on Google Play

All of the coverage maps displayed above are from the app!

 

Cellular Carrier Profiles

A general profile for each carrier is listed below.

Verizon - Carrier Profile

Verizon is the largest cellular carrier in the USA. It has the widest overall coverage area, the most deployed LTE, and typically good overall performance.

For these reasons, if you’re only going to choose one network – Verizon seems like the natural top choice.

But Verizon plans tend to be pricey and have limitations that keep them from being attractive as a primary mobile internet source.

And because Verizon’s network is known to have the widest coverage and is the most popular network amongst nomads, it’s actually not uncommon to pull into some popular areas to find the local Verizon tower overloaded and sluggish during peak times.

Device Tip:

For maximum compatibility – make sure that your Verizon devices support LTE Bands 2, 4, 5, and 13 – and that they have support for Verizon’s legacy CDMA 3G network too.

Verizon’s next cellular expansion will be on to LTE Band 66, so keep an eye out for support for this band too.

If you have older devices - keep an upgrade in mind, particular if you notice friends and neighbors getting better Verizon performance.

Recent Verizon News Stories:

AT&T - Carrier Profile

AT&T is the second-largest carrier and is a formidable rival and a great complement to Verizon for us nomads.

AT&T’s LTE network often lags Verizon in coverage and speed, but there are many parts of the country where AT&T excels - and is sometimes even the only option.

It used to be AT&T didn’t offer overly attractive data plans for home internet replacement usage, but that changed in 2017 - and (at least for now) AT&T has become a common top pick for mobile folks.

A combination of Verizon and AT&T on board gives the widest coverage across the country.

Device Tip:

For maximum compatibility – make sure that your AT&T devices support LTE Bands 2, 4, 5, and 12/17 – and now LTE Bands 29 and 30 too.

AT&T is calling its most advanced LTE technologies “5G Evolution”, so for the best possible future compatibility and performance keep an eye out for devices AT&T labels as compatible.

AT&T’s legacy “4G” HSPA+ network has great performance and speeds nationwide, and occasionally can even outperform AT&T LTE. If your device supports it, turning off LTE to try 4G can sometimes prove a worthwhile experiment.

Recent AT&T News Stories:

T-Mobile - Carrier Profile

T-Mobile has been the carrier to watch – blowing past Sprint to take a solid third place in the market, and T-Mobile is gunning for Verizon and AT&T next.

T-Mobile’s biggest achilles heel has been its lack of raw coverage, particularly in rural areas and indoors. When T-Mobile does have coverage, its network speeds are consistently some of the fastest.

T-Mobile is however moving aggressively to fill in its coverage gaps. In 2017 T-Mobile acquired a huge chunk of new 600MHz cellular spectrum, and in the years ahead will be deploying enhanced LTE service nationwide to fill in coverage holes.

Get the Book

But to benefit, you will need a compatible device capable of taking advantage of this new band!

Device Tips:

For maximum compatibility – make sure that your T-Mobile devices support LTE Bands 2, 4, and 12 – and support for the new LTE Band 71 will be required to take advantage of the 600MHz expansion.

As of the end of 2017, LTE Band 71 support is nearly non-existent in cellular devices - but more options should be available in the future. T-Mobile customers should consider putting off price device upgrades until Band 71 compatible options are available.

Recent T-Mobile News Stories:

Sprint - Carrier Profile

The fourth largest national cellular carrier has always been a technological oddball - and Sprint’s LTE network uses bands that none of the other carriers have embraced.

Sprint’s biggest advantage is that it tends to have affordable plan options, especially the promotional plans offered to lure new customers, or the special deals available only through third party resellers.

But the biggest downside of Sprint for nomads is its extremely limited nationwide coverage map.

The vast bulk of Sprint’s usable fast data coverage is pretty much only found in core urban areas and along major interstates. Often outside of that you’re roaming with very slow speeds – if you can get online at all.

If you’re planning to stick to urban areas, Sprint might be worthwhile. But for most nomads, it is at best a backup option.

Device Tips:

For maximum compatibility – make sure that your Sprint devices support LTE Bands 25, 26, and 41.

Some Sprint devices support a technology called “HPUE” which allows for extended range cellular connections on Sprint’s fastest band, LTE Band 41. HPUE support is still rare, but is worth seeking out to get the most out of Sprint’s network.

Recent Sprint News Stories:

Regional Carriers

In addition to the big four national carriers, there are a number of smaller regional and even local carriers that own and operate their own networks.

Some of the larger examples of this sort include U.S. Cellular, C-Spire Wireless, nTelos, Cellcom, and Cellular One.

These smaller regional carriers are usually poor choices for travelers, unless you know that you are primarily going to be spending time in areas where they have a strong native presence.

Even if the regional carrier has nationwide coverage through roaming agreements, if you’re utilizing the service primarily outside its home region, you can find yourself running into all sorts of restrictions and limitations, all the way up to having your service summarily terminated!

Getting Service

You can purchase service directly from each of the carriers as post paid or prepaid service. Or, there are many resellers & MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) who offer plans on the major carriers with different features, pricing or restrictions.

We cover all the options in our:
Guide on Selecting Cellular Data Plans

Current Best Pick Data Plans for RVers & Cruisers for Each Carrier:

  • Verizon - A grandfathered/legacy unlimited data plan is the best option for most US nomads who need lots of bandwidth and nationwide high speed coverage - the plans are not subject to network management or throttling (except HD video). The options for obtaining these plans are a bit complex and always changing. Monthly rates vary from $45-249. For more information: Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans.
    • Note: Verizon's new unlimited data plans only include 15GB of high speed mobile hotspot use per line (including Jetpacks) and are subject to network management. All Verizon plans are now subject to video streaming throttling, with the option to turn it off for $10/mo.
  • AT&T -  When activated on a Unlimited Plus plan, dedicated mobile hotspots are exempt from the 10GB high speed hotspot cap the smartphones are subject to. This is by far the best deal on AT&T right now with costs as low as $20/mo when added to a multi-line plan, or $90/mo standalone.  However it seems AT&T could be making shifts to no longer allow these types of devices on unlimited (more Info: AT&T Mobile Hotspots “No Longer Eligible” for Unlimited Data Plans).
  • T-Mobile - T-Mobile One+ International smartphone plans include sunlimited 4G personal hotspot use for $95/month which is a great option (those over 55 qualify for a $20/month discount!) - however hotspot use is de-priotized a bit over on device use.
    • Alternate: Reseller Millenicom still offers the older style 'Simple Choice' data only plans that include unlimited video streaming for as little as $35/month, as well as unlimited data plans for $70/month.
  • Sprint - Joining a non-profit (such as Calyx Institute or PCs for People) to obtain an unlimited Sprint plan due to some prior agreement the carrier inherited is the most affordable option out there. Pricing starts at $10/month (yes, $10 - we didn't miss a 0). For more information: Non-Profit Sprint Plans.
    • Alternates: If you prefer a direct carrier relationship, Sprint offers a mobile hotspot plan for an extra $50/mo on their Unlimited plan, or $75 as a stand alone option - neither are subject to hotspot caps. And FMCA members have access to an unlimited Sprint hotspot plan for $49.99/mo.

 


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