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

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 (or perhaps three come 2019 if the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is approved) 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 current 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.

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 current four major nationwide carriers are:

  • Verizon - has the most nationwide 4G coverage, but their most attractive plans are grandfathered and can be more difficult to get.
  • AT&T - close second to Verizon but with limited options for high bandwidth users, and in the year ahead will be gaining a lot of new capacity as they implement their FirstNet network.
  • T-Mobile - the carrier to watch with a rapidly expanding network as they roll out their new 600 Mhz network and currently has the only directly offered smartphone plan with unlimited high speed mobile hotspot use.
  • Sprint -  coverage generally only useful when close to bigger cities and along interstates, but has attractive plan options.
    • In May 2018, T-Mobile & Sprint announced their intentions to merge. There is still a lengthy approval process to go through that won't be complete until at least early 2019 - and then it's a couple years of implementation if approved.

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

Screenshots above taken from the May 2018 map update to our app Coverage?
- showing just non-roaming 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 Android version starts out 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.
Get it on Google Play

 

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 current Verizon plans tend to be pricey and have limitations that keep them from being attractive as a primary mobile internet source. Many nomads find it worth the effort and risks to seek out older legacy grandfathered unlimited data plans on the network, which are still available without any speed throttling.

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. In 2018 AT&T will be climbing every tower in their network to implement their Band 14 FirstNet network for first responders - and has promised to also upgrade all towers in the process which could mean doubled LTE speeds for all.

In 2017 AT&T offered several attractive unlimited data plans that many nomads were able to snag. As of early 2018 all of those plan options have retired (and are grandfathered for existing customers) and are no longer available. At present time, there are limited options for high bandwidth needs.

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, 30 too. Band 14 is rolling out on newer devices and eventually AT&T will allow all consumers to utilize this long range band at lower priority than first responders - so it will become important as well.

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 - especially if their intended merger with Sprint announced in May 2018 goes through.

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.

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

At present time, T-Mobile is the only carrier to offer a smartphone plan option with unlimited high speed mobile hotspot use - making them a compelling choice in a nomad's arsenal.

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.

 

Sprint Merger Notes: If the merger with Sprint goes through, then they will also have access to a bunch of unutilized spectrum holdings. However, the merger won't be approved until at least early 2019 at the soonest - and it's not a given. A lot of hurdles still need to be passed and then years of implementation. Definitely something to keep your eye on however!

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.

Get the Book

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.

T-Mobile Merger Notes: If the merger with T-Mobile goes through then the new combined carrier will be one to watch for sure! However, the merger won't be approved until at least early 2019 at the soonest - and it's not a given. A lot of hurdles still need to be passed. Definitely something to keep your eye on!

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 to Selecting Cellular Data Plans

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

Quick Video Overview with our top picks (this video is a bit out of date, there's been a LOT of recent changes - we'll be updating it soon, refer to our text below for the latest options):

Top Pick Plans:

These top picks focus on plans that providing the maximum amount of hotspot-enabled data (or on device for a tablet/PC) for the lowest cost.

  • Verizon
    • Verizon Legacy Unlimited Plans - A grandfathered/legacy unlimited data plan is the best deal 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).  Monthly rates vary from $5-249 depending on the method. However there is currently an active round of aggressive terminations, so we advise extreme caution pursuing this path.
    • Verizon's "Unlimited" -  Verizon's currently offered "unlimited" plans only include 15GB of high speed mobile hotspot use per line (including Jetpacks) on their Beyond Unlimited, and Above Unlimited plans include 20GB of high speed mobile hotspot per smartphone. Data top ups are available for $35 for 5GB as needed.
    • FMCA offers an 'unlimited' plan on a hotpot device to their members that has a hard 25GB high speed limit for $49.99/mo. It requires however a 2-year Verizon contract, and active 2-year FMCA membership.
    • Verizon Prepaid Double Data Promo - Verizon is running a promotion on their prepaid smartphone plans, get 20GB of hotspottable data from a smartphone for $60/month. You can keep the plan even after the promotion expires for as long as you keep renewing.
    • Visible is Verizon's new prepaid brand. For $40/month you get an iPhone based unlimited plan with all data capped at 5 mbps (very usable!). As part of their pre-launch they are included mobile hotspot use without any further restrictions. BUT this could change upon launch. It's no contract however, so might be worth it for now.
  • AT&T
    • Wireless Home Phone & Internet plans on the Wireless Internet device are available for $60/month for 50GB or $100/month for 100GB.
    • Unlimited Prepaid iPad Plan - AT&T offers prepaid tablet plans for $29.99 -35/month, but device is only available on device (no hotspot included). But with HDMI out for TV viewing and a bluetooth keyboard, a tablet can be quite a capable device.
    • Rental/Lease Vendors: There are many rental vendors out there offering plans from $60 - 199/month. Check our Guide to Unlimited Data for listings.
  • T-Mobile
    •  T-Mobile One+ International smartphone plans includes unlimited 4G personal hotspot use for $95/month which is a great option (55+ and Military qualify for great discounts!) - however hotspot use is de-priotized a bit over on device use.
    • Rental/Lease Vendors: There are many rental vendors out there offering plans from $70 - 250/month on data only devices. Check our Guide to Unlimited Data for listings.
  • Sprint
    • Non-Profit Unlimited Plans - 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 ranges from $10-33/month.
    • FMCA Sprint Plan: FMCA members also have access to an unlimited Sprint hotspot plan for $49.99/mo, with no contract but does require an active 2-year FMCA membership.
    • Sprint Direct 50GB Plan -  Sprint offers a direct hotspot plan with 50GB of data for $50/month.
    • Sprint Direct Tablet & 2-n-1 Unlimited Plans - For $15/month, Sprint offers an unlimited on device plan for tablets and select 2-n-1 PC devices, and includes 10GB of high speed hotspot data.

Last update: 7/2/2018

 


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