With all you've heard about iPhone 5, you think you're finally ready to switch from your feature phone, a BlackBerry or even an older Android device (if you haven't heard enough about iPhone 5, read our take here).
Now your question is, which is the best iPhone provider? With which cell phone providers should you sign up for LTE connectivity?
iPhone 5 is available from three national cell phone carriers – AT&T Wireless, Sprint and Verizon. All three offer both individual data plans, to which you have to add a voice plan, and sharing/family plans – a bucket of data shared by multiple devices, as well as a bucket of voice minutes.
For the sake of easy comparison of the varying shared data plans, I'm going to assume we're talking three devices – say, two iPhones and an iPad, or three iPhones (or an iPhone and some other LTE phone) – all sharing a data bucket of 6 GB a month.
How much data do you use?
Between my wife and I, we consume maybe 2-3 GB of data a month, primarily because we conduct most of our data usage at home in our Wi-Fi network. When I'm out, I always try to find Wi-Fi to conduct heavier data work, such as upgrading apps or downloading email attachments.
To determine which carrier is the best for your iPhone use, just bear in mind, iPhone 5's swift LTE connection will tempt you to do more Web surfing and content up- and downloading. Take whatever data estimate you come up with and double it – better to be safe than sorry, since data over-usage can get expensive.
Where can I get LTE?
In addition to price, there are 4G LTE connectivity geographic considerations – in short, Verizon has more than three times the LTE coverage area than AT&T combined.
Verizon's geographic LTE advantage is temporary. AT&T and Sprint are furiously expanding their LTE coverage. Eventually – in a year, maybe – the three carriers should all effectively blanket the obviously areas of the nation in LTE availability. And T-Mobile is expected to inaugurate its own LTE network next year so it, too, can start selling iPhone 5.
You can see a visual representation of each cell phone provider's LTE coverage on this excellent CNNMoney map.
Here are the financial and geographic pros and cons for each of the three carriers, and a recommendation for certain types of users.
Main Selling Point: iPhone's original cell phone carrier
LTE Coverage: As its commercials claim, Verizon is way out in front of AT&T in LTE coverage. According to AT&T, the carrier has coverage in 75 markets, just switching on Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fayetteville (NC), Honolulu, Portland (OR), Seattle and Wilmington (NC) a couple of days before iPhone 5 went on sale.
But AT&T has a Plan B for locales lacking LTE signal. It's HSPA+ network, which supplies the iPhone 4S it's faux "4G" connection, covers 275 million people.
Pricing: AT&T's individual monthly iPhone 5 data plans are the cheapest of the three carriers:
- 300 MB/$20
- 3 GB/$30
- 5 GB/$50
The latter deal includes tethering – using the LTE connection to your iPhone 5 to supply a Wi-Fi connection for other mobile devices such as laptop.
This Mobile HotSpot capability is included in all of AT&T's Mobile Share plans. You'll also need a Mobile Share plan to conduct FaceTime video chats using LTE.
In our assumed three device/6GB a month scenario, you'll pay $195/month under AT&T's Mobile Share plan, $20 less a month than Verizon, $15 more a month than Sprint.
Who's It For: AT&T is for families looking for a sharing plan and who live in one of the carrier's LTE markets. It is for those who travel only to large markets and are average data users.
Main Selling Point: Unlimited data plans.
LTE Coverage: Abysmal. Sprint offers LTE in only 19 cities, mostly in Texas, Georgia and Missouri. But the carrier promises New York, LA, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., will be LTE covered by the end of this year.
Pricing: Unlike AT&T Wireless and Verizon, which have created monthly data plans, Sprint still offers an all-you-can eat individual plans for $79.99 a month. Obviously, that's not necessarily a good thing. As I've noted, unless you continually stream music or movies to your phone, you can get by spending half that amount for a set amount of data.
On the sharing side, Sprint's three-device/6 GB plan runs $15 less a month than AT&T's at $179.98. But for some reason, amidst all of Sprint's unlimited claims, you're mysteriously limited to 1500 combined voice minutes to landline phones – you can still call mobile-to-mobile as often as you want.
Who's It For: No one, yet, until Sprint's LTE coverage covers something, and then only for heavy data using families.
Main Selling Point: Most extensive LTE coverage.
LTE Coverage: Nearly everywhere; technically, around 370 markets covering 75 percent of the geographic U.S. Verizon spends most of its expansion time filling in nooks and crannies.
Pricing: You'll pay for this coverage – Verizon charges the most for iPhone 5 monthly data usage for both individuals and families, sometimes more than twice as much as AT&T:
- 300 MB/$40 (twice as much as AT&T)
- 1 GB/$50
- 2 GB/$60 (AT&T: 3 GB/$30)
- 4 GB/$70 (AT&T: 5 GB/$50)
- 6 GB/$80 (Sprint offers unlimited data for the same price)
- 8 GB/$90
- 10 GB/$100
- 12 GB/$110
- 14 GB/$120
- 16 GB/$130
- 18 GB/$140
- 20 GB/$150
For your family, Verizon charges $200/month for three devices sharing 6 GB of data and unlimited voice, $20 more than Sprint.
Who's It For: Families whose members travel a lot.
I was tempted to switch from AT&T to Verizon because of the latter's more extensive coverage – until I saw Verizon's more extensive prices. While AT&T lacks Verizon's LTE thoroughness, the cell phone carrier covers most of major metro areas and, in those it doesn't, there's 4G HSPA+ service, not suddenly lousy 3G.
For me, at least, AT&T seems like the best compromise between price and coverage and the best iPhone provider.