The Four Major US Carriers – Which is Best for RVers?

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four-carriers-which-is-best-for-rversIf 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, knowing that coverage and speeds may actually vary block-by-block in your neighborhood due to tower placement and network load.

You can ask your friends and neighbors for experience, and you can check resources like:

While there might be an obvious “best” network for a given neighborhood, us frequent travelers have a harder choice to make.

There simply is no single best network everywhere nationwide. All of the big four have their strengths and weaknesses in various locations across the country, and sometimes regional and local carriers beat out the national carriers in a particular location.

However, while regional carriers may offer free roaming on to other networks as you travel, many have fine print where they can discontinue your service if you are not using your plan primarily from the carrier's home region.


 

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As a frequent traveler, you need to consider what carrier - or combination of carriers - will give you coverage in the places you want to roam.   This article is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the four major carriers in the US as they relate to mobile internet for RVers - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint & T-Mobile.


The sections included in this guide:Video overview of the Four Carriers

  • Carrier Profiles
    • Verizon Direct Postpaid Plan Features
    • AT&T Direct Postpaid Plan Features
    • T-Mobile Direct Postpaid Plan Features
    • Sprint  Direct Postpaid Plan Features
  • Cellular Data Plan Selector to Getting Service
    • (list of direct carrier options, prepaid and resellers)
  • Other guides to selecting cellular data plans

Coverage

The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is. And for those relying on mobile internet, how widespread their fastest 4G coverage is.

Below is a quick comparison of the four carriers LTE coverage maps:

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

coverage_new_iconCoverage? (available currently for iOS, and aiming for early 2017 for Android – www.twostepsbeyond.com/apps/coverage) overlays our versions of the four major carriers maps, so you can create a personalized coverage map for the carriers you travel with.

The maps are stored on device, so you don’t even need to have coverage right now to find out which direction to head to find your next whiff of signal.

All coverage maps displayed on this page are taken from the app.

Video Overview

We created a 20 minute video that covers most of the details below.. but be sure to check the text below too, as the details are subject to constant changes:

Compare the Carrier's Plan Features

Verizon - Plan Features

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing LTE coverage for Verizon.

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing LTE coverage for Verizon.

Ask in almost any RVing group about what carriers is best, and you'll hear Verizon mentioned more often than any other. There's a good reason for that - they will have you covered in more places.

Verizon is the largest cellular carrier in the USA. It has the widest overall coverage area, the most deployed LTE, and great overall performance. Verizon has a promising future roadmap too – with an ever-expanding network and advanced XLTE service widely deployed.

They are extremely strong in metro areas, and cover many rural areas as well. Most of their network is owned by the network, so you are very infrequently roaming - and even when you are, they don't impose domestic data roaming caps.

Their Weaknesses: Such a wide network takes money, and Verizon tends to be the most expensive. They can also have overloaded towers in some markets - and because so many RVers depend on the Verizon network it's not uncommon to get to a crowded RV Park to find slower than desired speeds because so many are online.

The 'New' Plan Policies & Perks (7/7/2016 and after):

On July 7, 2016 Verizon has introduced their 'New' Verizon Plan with new features which existing customers must opt into to receive:

  • Domestic Roaming: Verizon imposes no limits on domestic roaming for calls or data when you are off their network.
  • International: Verizon mobile shared plans offer 'Travel Pass' which allows you to use your plan internationally. In Mexico & Canada the cost is $2/day, and in other countries it is $10/day. Charges are only imposed on days you actually use the plan. For customers on XL or above data plans, the Mexico/Canada feature is included for free.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All Verizon direct plans include mobile hotspot use, however most plans obtained via a reseller do not include the feature.
  • Data Roll Over: Verizon now includes Carry Over Data.  If you don't use all of your data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used next month.
  • Overage Charges: Verizon plans now include the ability to turn on 'Safety Mode' as desired.
    • With Safety Mode enabled, data will simply be slowed down to 2G-speed 128 kbps (just enough to do the basics) for the rest of the month - essentially 'unlimited' slow speed data.
    • Data Boosts can be purchased for $15/GB, or customers can change their plan level as needed.
  • Streaming: Streaming video using their go90 or the NFL Mobile apps do not count against your data cap.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: Not available directly from the carrier to new consumers, however grandfathered in plans can be obtained.
    • PopData: New as of October 2016, Verizon Plans have a feature to purchase 30 ($2) or 60 ($3) minute sessions of unlimited data when needed. Presenting a flexible way to purchase data for large file transfers.
  • Domestic Roaming: Verizon imposes no limits on domestic roaming for calls or data when you are off their network.
  • International: On current Verizon mobile shared plans, they offer 'Travel Pass' which allows you to use your plan internationally. In Mexico & Canada the cost is $2/day, and in other countries it is $10/day. Charges are only imposed on days you actually use the plan. You must opt into this feature on your account, it is not automatic. (International packages are not available on unlimited data plans - standard international roaming charges will apply.)
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All Verizon direct plans include mobile hotspot use, however at present time none of their plans obtained via a reseller include the features.
  • Data Roll Over: Verizon does not roll over data - you lose what you don't use at the end of your billing period.
  • Overage Charges: For tiered data plans, overage charges are automatically added to your account if you exceed your monthly data cap. You can however change your data plan mid-month to avoid overages, and sometimes the carrier will backdate the change if you call them directly before the end of your billing month, effectively erasing overages already accumulated.
  • Streaming: Streaming video using their go90 or the NFL Mobile apps do not count against your data cap.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: Not available directly from the carrier to new consumers, however grandfathered in plans can be obtained.

 

Recommendation: If keeping connected is important to you in your travels, this is probably the network to have service on. And if you're only going to have one carrier, this is the one that will give you the widest coverage.

Recent Verizon News Stories:

AT&T - Plan Features

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing HSPA+ and LTE coverage for AT&T.

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing HSPA+ and LTE coverage for AT&T.

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 lags Verizon in coverage and speed, but AT&T’s older 3G and 4G networks have great coverage and speeds that blow Verizon’s legacy 3G out of the water.

There are plenty of locations we have been where the best Verizon can manage is 3G or very weak or overloaded LTE. Sometimes in those locations AT&T ends up delivering a much better overall experience.

Their Weakness: Their prices are on par with Verizon in most respects, which tend to be higher than the other two carriers below. Their smartphone & tablet unlimited data plans (grandfathered or new with DirecTV) do not include tethering/hotspot use, are subject to network management and are on device only.  Occasionally you can find data only hotspot plans on AT&T for sale, however they are pricey and may be subject to network management.

The 'Advantage' Policies & Perks (after 8/21/2016):

  • Domestic Roaming: Their network does have more off-carrier roaming area, and they have domestic data roaming limits of 400MB of data per month. If you exceed that, they may shut down your data access until you are back on one of their towers.
  • International: AT&T international features are a bit confusing.
    • Mexico: Mobile Share Advantage plans with 10GB+ of data can automatically be used just like in the US in Mexico. Plans with less data get 1GB of high speed data, but the feature must be turned on in advance.
    • Canada & Mexico: Those with a DirecTV based unlimited data plans can use the plans in Canada & Mexico for short trips - and the feature must be turned on in advance. (Note: Cricket Wireless customers can use 50% of their plan in Canada as well.)
    • Rest of the World: They offer a 'Passport' package add-on for $30/month for 120mb of data, and discounts off international calling.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All AT&T mobile share plans include mobile hotspot use. However, none of their unlimited data plans do (except for Connected Car).
  • Data Roll Over: If you don't use all of your data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used next month.
  • Overage Charges: There are no overage charges. Once you hit your high speed data cap, speeds are throttled to 128kbps speeds.
  • Streaming: Starting in September 2016, AT&T updated the DirecTV mobile app to allow all postpaid AT&T customers on a 'SELECT or above' DirecTV plan to stream from the app without using their data allotment. All other streaming will count. In November 2016, they also launched the DirecTV Now mobile app that does not require a physical dish for streaming - streaming from the DirecTV Now app on a smartphone does not count against AT&T data caps.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: Unlimited smartphone, tablet & connect car plans are available to new customers who are also DirecTV or Uverse customers. Grandfathered unlimited iPad plans, and rental/lease business lines can also be found.

Policies & Perks:

  • Domestic Roaming: Their network does have more off-carrier roaming area, and they have domestic data roaming limits of 400MB of data per month. If you exceed that, they may shut down your data access until you are back on one of their towers.
  • International: AT&T international features are a bit confusing.
    • Mexico: Mobile Share Value plans with 15GB+ of data can automatically be used just like in the US in Mexico. Plans with less data get 1GB of high speed data, but the feature must be turned on in advance.
    • Canada & Mexico: Those with a DirecTV based unlimited data plans can use the plans in Canada & Mexico for short trips - and the feature must be turned on in advance. (Note: Cricket Wireless customers can use 50% of their plan in Canada as well.)
    • Rest of the World: They offer a 'Passport' package add-on for $30/month for 120mb of data, and discounts off international calling.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All AT&T mobile share plans include mobile hotspot use. However, none of their unlimited data plans do (except for Connected Car).
  • Data Roll Over: If you don't use all of your data in your current billing period, it rolls over to be used next month.
  • Overage Charges: For tiered data plans, overage charges are automatically added to your account if you exceed your monthly data cap. You can however change your data plan mid-month to avoid overages, and sometimes the carrier will backdate the change if you call them directly before the end of your billing month, effectively erasing overages already accumulated.
  • Streaming: All streaming counts against data caps on AT&T.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: Unlimited smartphone, tablet & connect car plans are available to new customers who are also DirecTV or Uverse customers. Grandfathered unlimited iPad plans, and rental/lease business lines can also be found.

 

Recommendation: AT&T is a strong and widespread network, and a great compliment to the Verizon network for travelers. If you need to keep online, we recommend keeping AT&T in your arsenal along with a Verizon option. We also feel that AT&Ts network is a worthy contender as a second choice to Verizon for those contemplating having only one carrier.

Recent AT&T News Stories:

T-Mobile - Plan Features

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing 4G coverage for T-Mobile.

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing 4G coverage for T-Mobile.

The self proclaimed 'Uncarrier' is shaking up the industry by implementing policies not seen before.

Already they have weened the carriers off contracts, device subsidies, lowering pricing, eliminating overage charges and introducing roll-over data. And they continue to innovate by offering features like unlimited music & video streaming   And they continue to innovate with some great perks.

They have pretty good urban coverage in the USA that is currently undergoing rapid expansion with the deployment of Band 12, however they are still a distant 3rd carrier in terms of coverage outside of metro areas.

In mid 2016, T-Mobile launched T-Mobile One and One+, while still keeping around some of their former Simple Choice plans.  In mid-December they followed up by confusing their plans even further by redefining One+ and adding One Plus International (which has little to do with international... but mainly adds high speed tethering domestically, the feature generally important to RVers.)

Their Weaknesses: While they are rapidly expanding their network, their data network is still weak outside of urban areas, and has a lot of roaming areas which will be quite slow. To get their newest coverage, you must have a newer device that supports Band 12. They also have made it clear their plans are not intended to be a home internet replacement.

Policies & Perks:

  • Domestic Roaming: After 200mb of domestic roaming, T-Mobile cuts off your off network usage until your next billing cycle, or you're back in a native area.
  • International: T-Mobile has some of the easiest and best international features:
    • Canada & Mexico - All plans include 'Mobile Without Borders' automatically - you can use your plan in Mexico & Canada just as if you're domestic in terms of voice, text & high speed data. In both countries, T-Mobile has partnered with most of the carriers, and devices can utilize all of those partners. However, the Binge On Video streaming is not included internationally. . And on T-Mobile One plans, tethering is NOT included. They do reserve the right to enforce the policy that the plan needs to be used 'mostly' in the USA
    • Rest of the World - T-Mobile plans include free unlimited international data, as 2G speeds. However, One, One+ and One+ International do NOT include tethering. They have partnered with over 140 countries. If you'd like 3G speeds, T-Mobile One customers can upgrade to T-Mobile One+ for $15/month or T-Mobile One Plus International for $25/month. Simple Choice customers can purchase pricey Data Passes for 3G international speeds.
    • For international tethering, we recommend acquiring a Simple Choice plan, which includes the feature - just at 2G speeds outside of North America.
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: T-Mobile plans include mobile hotspot use, however they do prioritize on device data over tethered / mobile hotspot data on all smartphone and tablet plans when on congested towers. Customers can expect to see slower speeds (reported up to half the speed) while using mobile hotspot on smartphones & tablets compared to the speeds they get directly on the device.  Data only plans, such as for mobile hotspots, are not subject to reduced speeds. Further more, additional terms apply for their unlimited data plans:
    • T-Mobile One and One+: Unlimited plans include free hotspot use at 3G speeds (512 kbps). Use is subject to network management and usage must primarily be for on-device data. T-Mobile reserves the right to contact customers 'to discuss options' for those using the plans primarily for mobile hotspot use.
    • T-Mobile One Plus International: For $25/month per line customers can upgrade to One+ International which includes unlimited high speed mobile hotspot use. (The plan also includes calling to some international land lines.)
  • Data Roll Over: For Simple Choice plans, any high speed data you don't use is rolled over into 'Data Stash' for up to a year. You can accumulate up to 20GB in this account, to use when you need it. T-Mobile One plans don't have this feature, as they are unlimited.
  • Overage Charges: T-Mobile never charges overage fees. Once you hit your high speed data cap, you are just simply slowed down to 2G speeds for the rest of the billing period.
  • Streaming:
    • Simple Choice - Binge On! All Simple Choice plans (prepaid and postpaid) with 6GB of data or more include video streaming that does not count against your high speed data cap on partnered networks (including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBONow, YouTube, etc.), but at DVD-quality lower resolution. It only works on on-device or when tethered to a laptop - and presently is not compatible with streaming devices like Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, FireTV, etc.  They also include free music streaming over many services. (Note, their Simply Prepaid plans do NOT include the video streaming.) Binge On usage however does count towards network management thresholds and is subject to slower speeds for high usage customers when on congested towers.
    • T-Mobile One and One+: Customers of T-Mobile One have video streaming for all video services reduced to 480p resolution (or 1.5 mpbs speeds). HD Daily passes can be purchased for $3 for 24 hours of unlimited high definition video streaming. Or, customers can upgrade to T-Mobile One+ for $15/month and have unlimited daily passes to use.
  • Unlimited Data Plans: They do offer an unlimited smartphone plan, and starting in September 1, 2016 they switched to 'T-Mobile One' for unlimited. Here are the differences between the old Simple Choice and new plans:
    • Grandfathered Simple Choice (pre-September 1, 2016): Includes 14GB of high speed mobile hotspot use, and is subject to network management.
    • T-Mobile One (after September 1, 2016): Includes all video streaming at 480p (with $3 daily HD passes) and mobile hotspot use throttled to 512K. Customers can add on One+ for $15/month per line which enables unlimited HD daily passes and 3G speeds internationally. For $25/month, customers can upgrade to One Plus International, that adds on high speed data tethering that is still subject to being de-priotized over on device data. The plans are also subject to network management after 28GB of use in a month, and data usage must be primarily on the device (not just for mobile hotspot use.).

Recommendation: While their coverage is constantly expanding, at this time, we don't recommend them as a primary carrier for travelers who need coverage nationwide.

For RVers we consider their data only mobile hotspot plans for as little as $35/month for 6GB of data to be an inexpensive & flexible option that includes Binge On, mobile hotspot use, international and data stash. Their T-Mobile One smartphone plan may make sense for some with occasional tethering needs.

Recent T-Mobile News Stories:

Sprint - Plan Features

From the November 2016 release of our iOS app 'Coverage? - showing 4G coverage for Sprint.

Sprint’s biggest advantage is that it tends to have the most affordable options, especially the promotional plans offered to lure new customers.

The vast bulk of Sprint’s usable fast data coverage is pretty much only found in core urban areas and along major interstates. Anything outside of that, and 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 – and Sprint’s tri-band LTE Plus network shows great promise for the future.

Their weaknesses: Their network is not nearly as large as Verizon or AT&T, and is roaming in most places outside of urban areas or off interstates. In 2016, they are trying to minimize their operating costs and will be moving their equipment to less expensive towers - which may result in service disruptions, and potentially reduced coverage.

Policies & Perks:

  • Domestic Roaming: Has a 100-300MB roaming cap per month on all of their data plans.. If you go over, they start charging overage fees of 25 cents per megabyte. That can add up very fast!
  • International: Sprint's international plans can be a bit confusing, but free to sign up for:
    • Canada, Mexico & Central/South America: Their 'Open World' plan is free to sign up for in advance, and includes free calling & text, and 1GB of high speed data (overages at $30/GB). Or with 'Global Roaming' you get free unlimited 2G speed data.
    • Rest of the World: 'Open World' gets you 20 cents/minute calling, and 2G speed data at $30/GB. Or, you can use 'Global Roaming' and pay 20 cents/minute and get free unlimited data at 2G speeds (3G speed access passes can be purchased.)
  • Mobile Hotspot Use: All Sprint tiered data plans include mobile hotspot use, and their unlimited data plans include 5GB of use.
  • Data Roll Over: Sprint does not roll over data - you lose what you don't use at the end of your billing period.
  • Overage Charges: Sprint never charges overage fees. Once you hit your high speed data cap, you are just simply slowed down to 2G speeds for the rest of the billing period.
  • Streaming: All streaming counts against data caps on Sprint. On unlimited plans, streaming is at low resolution only..
  • Unlimited Data Plans: They do offer an unlimited smartphone plan called Unlimited Freedom that includes 5GB of high speed mobile hotspot use, and is subject to network management after 23GB of use. The plan also downgrades all video (to 480p resolution), music (to 500kpbs) and gaming (to 2mpbs) traffic. Customer can upgrade to HD video for $20/month per line. Tablets and additional lines can be added to Unlimited Freedom plans at reduced prices.

Recommendation: If you're sticking to urban areas and traveling mostly interstates - Sprint, particularly one of the high bandwidth or unlimited MVNO options, may be a worthwhile part of your arsenal. But for most travelers, Sprint is not an ideal option.

Recent Sprint News Stories:


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.

Use our guide below to navigate through the plans available for each carrier. Click any of them to get more information on the plans offered:

U.S. Cellular

The largest regional carrier offers plans that include nationwide coverage, but not for primary use.

Overall Review:

FreedomPop

FreedomPop offers free cellular plans on Sprint and global plans including T-Mobile & AT&T.

Overall Review:

Straight Talk

A TracFone brand available at Walmart offers prepaid mobile hotspot plans, primarily on Verizon and AT&T.

Overall Review:

Virgin Mobile

Subsidiary of Sprint, offering prepaid smartphone plans with mobile hotspot use.

Overall Review:

Simply Prepaid

T-Mobile’s lower cost prepaid native cellular phone & data plan.

Overall Review:

Project Fi

Google’s unique MVNO option that combines the coverage map of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

Overall Review:

Karma Go

Karma’s proprietary mobile hotspot provides service powered by Sprint.

$149

Overall Review:

H2O Bolt

Reseller of AT&T offering dedicated data plans for mobile hotspots.

Overall Review:

Better Choice & Unlimited Freedom

Sprint’s own postpaid native cellular phone & data plan.

Overall Review:

Sprint Prepaid

Sprint’s own prepaid native cellular phone plans.

Overall Review:

MetroPCS

Owned by T-Mobile, MetroPCS offers competitive prepaid smartphone plans with tetherable data.

Overall Review:

4G Antenna Shop

Offers month-to-month no contract plans on T-Mobile, AT&T and sometimes Verizon.

Overall Review:

Sprint Unlimited Plan

This plan is now discontinued, and replaced with an Unlimitedville Rental Plan.

Overall Review:

Consumer Cellular

Reseller of AT&T and T-Mobile, offering smaller data plans with mobile hotspot use.

Overall Review:

Mobile Solutions

Offers month-to-month no contract unlimited plans on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. But poor customer service reported.

Overall Review:

Boost Mobile

Subsidiary of Sprint, offering prepaid smartphone and mobile hotspot plans.

Overall Review:

Charge

Offering prepaid never expiring data on the Sprint network for smartphones and mobile hotspots.

Overall Review:

Cricket Wireless

Subsidiary of AT&T offering prepaid smartphone plans with data usage.

Overall Review:

Unlimitedville Rental Plans

Unlimitedville offers one-stop shopping for unlimited data plan rentals on all of the major carriers.

Overall Review:

Non-Profit Sprint Unlimited Data Plans

A clause in the Sprint Clear WiMax purchase allows for non-profits to offer low cost unlimited data plans.

Overall Review:

Millenicom

Offers T-Mobile smartphone and data plans at lower costs but with all the T-Mobile postpaid perks.

Overall Review:

Boom! Mobile

Verizon reseller that includes mobile hotspot use on iPhones, and no roaming restrictions.

Overall Review:

For More Related Cellular Content:

Understanding Your Unlimited Cellular Data Options

MVNOs, Resellers & Prepaid Cellular Data Options – What You Need To Know

Guide to Cellular Boosters (Get the most out of your cellular plans!)

MiFi/Jetpack, USB Modem or Smartphone Hotspotting? (Which equipment to use!)

Member Related Exclusives:

Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans

Cellular Carrier Data Comparisons – Pricing & Plan Guide

LTE Mobile Hotspot Guide (MiFi/JetPacks) & USB Modems

Selecting a Cellular Booster (Comparative Testing)

Selecting a Cellular Antenna (Comparative Testing & Analysis)

 

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