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Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile

A Comparison of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, and Discussions of Coverage, Drops, Reliability, and Service-Related Issues

Last Update: 06/07/2017

This comparison of the various US-based carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) serves as an umbrella posting to the "dropped call" lists for the individual carriers iterated immediately below.

While call drops and coverage are important aspects of a given carrier's service, other factors which can not be readily reflected nor easily contrasted on the individual lists, such as reliability, call set-up speed, ease-of-use, customer service, billing practices, etc, are detailed here in a macroscopic discussion of the various wireless carriers and how they compare to and stand out from one another.

[ Wirelessnotes Home | Interpage | Overview/General | Criteria for Inclusion | Verizon Cellular Dropped Call List | Verizon Data Network 3G/4G Problems/Drop List | AT&T Wireless Dropped Call List | Sprint Dropped Call List | T-Mobile Dropped Call List | Nextel Drop List | Disclaimer | Cellular Audio Delay/Latency | Contact Wirelessnotes.org ]


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General:

The Wireless Notes Cellular/Wireless Comparison Page will hopefully serve as an ongoing overview United States wireless carriers and how they measure up against each other. The discussion primarily concerns itself (as do the dropped call lists) with the quality and reliability of cellular service in the United States, and is not intended as a roster of price or "deal of the month" comparisons between the various cellular carriers. While price is of course an important component of wireless service (made significantly higher - by as much as 35% in some states like New York - by endless taxes and charges), this reference is not primarily concerned with specific price plans, but instead concentrates more generally on technical, reliability, and customer-service oriented aspects of the four major US wireless carriers.


Criteria:

As per the Wireless Notes main page, we of course realize that this isn't a pretty list, or one which has lots of scripting or Flash or HTML5 content. It, like the various dropped call lists (Verizon Dropped Call List (Voice), Verizon Data Dropped Call List, AT&T Wireless Dropped Call List, Sprint Dropped Call List, T-Mobile Dropped Call List), is mainly textual and not much more than that, but the point is we're not interested in form as much a substance.

And the substance is based on over 25 years of experience with cellular service in the US and Canada - many of the authors and contributors of the Wireless Notes site, and in particular this cellular carrier comparison, have had wireless phones since the inception of cellular service in the North America, and witnessed the cellular industry's growth and evolution.

In fact, a few of us even had used the MTS/IMTS (Mobile Telephone Service/Improved Mobile Telephone Service) which predated analog cellular/AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service), and can compare and contrast the benefits (few) and drawbacks (many) of the older MTS/IMTS services to the newer AMPS Analog Cellular Service (which led to the digital network we now use), but that's for another post!

Suffice it to say that most of us remember when coverage, even in large cities, MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas), and major interstate corridors was lacking to non-existent, when calls were not delivered to a mobile subscriber outside their "home" market without the use of Roam Ports, when roaming cost $3+ per day and 99 cents per minute to talk (PLUS a long-distance charge in some cases!), and many other aspects of the early stages of North American Cellular Service were still in their infancy (see the Wireless Notes Main Page for an index of various posts and articles dealing with early stages of North American cellular service).

A lot of progress has been made since the days of roaming, cellular long distance, first incoming minute free, or even abortive attempts to provide "equal access" (by dialing 10XXX prior to the number, where XXX was a given long distance provider) for mobile customers, and cellular has to a greater or lesser extent become commoditized, that is, all the major carriers now offer more or less the same baseline product, with no roaming charges, caller ID, text messaging, and truly unlimited voice minutes (unlike most Voip and less-than-scrupulous telephone providers who find what they perceive to be clever ways to impose limits on their purported unlimited use plans; if they say unlimited that's what they should actually offer!).

However, as most people who have switched from one carrier to another have likely concluded, the quality of the "product" of each of the carriers, that is, wireless voice and data service, is not the same. Some carriers have superior coverage, others better sounding voice quality, and still others lower (thus more life-like) voice or data latency.

The carrier comparison/discussion below focuses on each of the four major US carriers (Verizon, AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile) and their associated MVNO's (Mobile Virtual Network Operators)/resellers, and compares how each carrier and their respective network stacks up from our somewhat extensive use of each of them. More detailed coverage problems and other issues are discussed on carrier drop lists, via the individual drop links above.


Disclaimer/Note: This comparison of US cellular carriers, and all other materials on the Wirelessnotes.org site, are purely the opinions of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of any other entity. In other words, these are just our and/or other's observations -- we try to be accurate, but we make no representations other than what we have observed (and if others notice an error or other statement which we are wrong about, please mail us so we can evaluate the correction and modify the list accordingly if so needed).


Carrier Comparison of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile's Wireless Networks and Services



Verizon Wireless

(Verizon Dropped Calls/Locations List)

To begin with, we generally find Verizon Wireless to offer the most drop-free, reliable, and dependable cellular network, especially in areas where they were the initial "B" (wireline) carrier when cellular service started. These markets include all Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems (BAMS, including NJ Bell, Bell of Pennsylvania, Diamond State Telephone (DE), C&P Telephone (DC, MD, VA, W.VA)) service areas, the NYNEX Markets (New England Tel, New York Tel), and former GTE Mobilnet (Northern CA, Texas, western Florida, etc.).

In all of these wireline markets, Verizon is by far the most dependable and drop-free carrier - they work with the same degree of reliability as one would expect from a land-line phone (but, like any cellular/wireless carrier, are not a substitute for one). Calls generally go through on the first try, circuits are rarely jammed or busy, there is little distortion (other than the voice/audio distortion associated with Verizon and Sprint's CDMA digital cellular protocol; see below), and calls rarely drop. Indeed - we've been on calls from Maine to Washington DC which did not drop for the entire distance. We have found no other carrier capable of coming even near such a capability.

Verizon's coverage penetration in the markets where we have some degree of experience with them is also by far the most mature and developed of all the other carriers - there are countless areas of the country where Verizon service works and penetrates reasonably well, while every other carrier has either no signal at all or such weak and spotty coverage so as to render a call (which does actually go through) to be inaudible, distorted, full of audio drop-outs, and generally useless for any type of conversation..

Verizon currently (late 2015) uses the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) protocol (as does Sprint) to encode, transmit, and decode voice traffic. While spectrally efficient and technically robust, CDMA voice quality is distinctly sub-standard as compared to traditional landline service, and somewhat lower in quality compared to GSM service (offered by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile) when a strong GSM signal is present. CDMA suffers from a metallic, distorted "twang" audio character, which is especially noticeable at the beginning and end of spoken words. It also significantly distorts music and non-verbal sounds, especially in circumstances of high background noise. Finally, it suffers from a greater degree of latency, where it takes a longer period of time for your voice to reach the caller (and their's to reach you) as compared to the nearly instantaneous case of a landline (non-VoIP) phone, or the somewhat better case of mobile phones using the GSM protocol. Latency is further compounded (hence a greater delay) in cellphone-to-cellphone calls, adding even more delay and making natural conversation much more difficult (almost as if on a satellite call). We feel that while digital cellular has certain benefits over older analog service (longer battery life, greater degree of privacy, less static), customers should not have to "give up" the high-quality conversational experience they are used to from landline for the less than stellar sound and latency issues of CDMA.

As a result, even though Verizon's choice of CDMA allowed it as a corporate entity to provide for rapid growth and reliable service, the call experience of CDMA is quite lacking, and we will generally use Verizon while driving or traveling since it is least likely to drop and has extensive coverage, but if we need to be on a conference call, have a detailed conversation with a lot of "back and forth", or just want to hear (and be heard by) the other party well, we'll use AT&T or TMO with their GSM protocol for the better call quality, assuming we're in a good coverage area.

Verizon's data services, including 1XRTT, EvDO and 4G/LTE are also equally developed, and reliably penetrate/cover significantly larger coverage areas than any other carrier. Generally, Verizon data sessions/connections demonstrate a similar 'drop-free' character as do voice calls, and we regularly start Verizon data sessions in one state and travel through many others without the connection dropping and needing to be reset.

Unfortunately, however, Verizon's data service in many cases has a 24-hour reset window, where data connections are forced to disconnect, and require either automated or manual intervention to re-establish a given data session. This forces any applications or file transfer to abort, resulting in additional data usage charges (to retransmit files, videos, etc which the 24-hour window disconnected), and generally makes for an entirely unnecessary and annoying experience in re-establishing the connection and re-obtaining the files, videos, etc, which were being received (or sent) when Verizon arbitrarily and foolishly forced their data connection to disconnect.

A more recent problem, which surfaced in late 2010 or so, and has been reported in a number of online fora (including OnSIP and Howard Forums), is Verizon's use of an Application Layer Gateway for SIP telephony over its wireless data network. Generally, Application Layer Gateways (ALGs) are problematic for voice-over-IP/SIP, and Verizon's reported/suspected use of an ALG interferes with SIP "register" requests (used to set up a SIP connection to place and receive calls). It appears that different devices and software clients (virtual phones used to place calls from a laptop or smartphone) are affected, and more often than not the problem affects tethering of SIP equipment (such as using a phone as a hotspot and placing calls from a softphone on a laptop tethered to the phone). It's unclear why Verizon has implemented this -- some posts claim they don't want people competing for voice carriage with them, others posit that the use of an ALG was based on good intentions but sloppily implemented, resulting in the ongoing blocking problems. We've tested a number of SIP clients (devices, softphones, etc.) and we've had very limited success in terms of connecting and placing/receiving calls using Verizon Wireless Data; we tested 1XRTT, EvDO, and 4G/LTE, all of which had problems and only worked with a very limited number of softphones and other equipment. The same clients/equipment had (and continue to) have no problem whatsoever with AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, yet the issue still persists something Verizon needs to remedy, both for the convenience and utility of all Verizon data customers, as well as to remove any suspicion that they are trying to block or adversely affect certain types of data and services.

Other Verizon data problems/issues include rapid timeouts/disconnects for momentary poor coverage (while moving, forcing a customer to re-establish a data session after only a minute or so of no coverage), and overpriced Static IPs. More information is available about these issues on the Verizon Data Drops and Issues Page.

Overall, in terms of technical proficiency, reliability, and having a phone (or data card or device) which works where one would expect it to, doesn't drop, and can be relied upon, Verizon is in a class by itself and no other carrier comes close to approaching their high level of reliable service.

Perhaps as a result of their solid performance technically, they may feel less of a need to be competitive in other areas, such as customer service, attentiveness to customer complaints, and staffing of their call centers. While we haven't yet had the displeasure of dealing with an off-shore call center (which on one call is answering Verizon queries and the next answering questions on how to install a Maytag washer! :) ), we've had our fair share of less-than-competent Verizon Wireless call center reps who seem more interested in up-selling to a new phone or plan rather than addressing a problem, or equally as often incapable of resolving anything but the simplest of issues.

To be fair, Verizon does provide supervisory escalation and eventually, after going through protracted calls, one will generally reach someone with the competence, common-sense, and abilities to resolve most issues. However, the process of going through all these de riguer steps just to get someone who can actually help (a problem which is unfortunately increasingly in evidence is most American companies these days) is tiresome and can easily discourage most customers from having their issues properly addressed, and there is certainly room for Verizon to improve in this area.

Verizon Wireless Summary:

  • Voice Service: Pros - The best carrier overall, coverage rarely drops (see the Verizon Call Drops List for details); extensive coverage in their markets; roaming generally available of partner (such as US cellular) CDMA markets with full use of features; the most technically proficient and reliable carrier. Cons - Verizon's use of the CDMA protocol makes for unnatural and mildly disturbing sounding calls with a greater degree of latency (delay) than a traditional landline or even GSM cellular service.
  • Data Service: Pros - Again, the best carrier overall, coverage rarely drops (see the Verizon Data Drops List for details); extensive coverage throughout their markets, and generally in their roaming partners as well. Cons - (a) 24-hour forced disconnect is a ridiculous and tedious impediment which Verizon foolishly imposes which wastes customer time and effort, (b) static IPS are expensive and difficult for non-commercial customers to obtain, (c) rapid timeouts in areas of poor/no coverage result in unecessary disconnects and customer reconnection attempts, (d) shifting down from 4G to 3G to 1X speeds (or back up) sometimes happens so often that it is difficult to pass any data through, (e) SIP/Voip problems/blocking so that softphones and SIP devices often don't work over Verizon's data networks (but work fine on every other carriers'), and (f) multipath signaling (such as along the Hudson River between NYC and urban NJ) also results in areas of problematic to no usable data due presumably to all the negotiating between towers and failure to properly engineer the RF characteristics in such areas.
  • Call Features: - Good, but not the best. Verizon used to offer a series of very specific call-forwarding codes to control Busy-Transfer (*74 on/*740 off), No-Answer-Transfer (*71/*710), Unavailable Transfer (phone off or out of coverage, *75/*750) and Unconditional Forward (*72/*720 or *73), and each condition could be individually activated/deactivated. (GSM carriers, such as AT&T and TMO, generally offer each of these forward features and can return current feature status, while CDMA carriers such as Sprint and Verizon can not.) Many Verizon (and ex-GTE) markets had somewhat different features codes, and with the increase in system integration in the early 2000's, Verizon seems to eliminate the full range of control features in favor of a more standardized pattern, so that now it is generally *71 to set up Busy Transfer AND No-Answer-Transfer (there is no way to control them separately as there is with GSM) and *72 to set up Unconditional Call-Forwarding. *73 appears to remove Unconditional only, and *710 appears to remove Busy/No-Answer. Generally then, while adequate for most uses, Verizon's *-Transfer/Forward codes are less features than those of AT&T or T-Mobile, but adequate for most users.
  • Customer Service - As the top carrier, and as a carrier which has a significant number of B-side/wireline licenses from it's founding mobile carriers (NYNEX Mobile, Bell Atlantic Mobile, GTE Mobilnet, etc), a lot of the Bell System (or even worse) GTE mentality shows through, and they can be stodgy and unwilling to make much of an effort to help out with problems, especially at the front end. They, much like the landline side of the business trying to sell FiOS, appear most often interested in "sell, sell, sell" and not as much in solving technical or other issues which crop up. Escallation is often required for all but the simplest of problems, and the attitude and disposition of many of their front line representatives in on the weaker side (more like Sprint), than the more professional, well-spoken, and well, smarter people who staff T-Mobile's call centers. And in all fairness to the Bell System and local Bell operating Company customer service, even if they weren't always interested in what you called about they "knew the rules" and if there was a problem would generally know they had to respond to get it fixed, with Verizon Wireless the answer is often some off-the-cuff, flippant, or speculative answer rather than the rep just saying "I don't know, let me get you to someone who does". Generally, a number of problems which have cropped up with Verizon Wireless over the years have required a series of escallations to get resolved, and their overall front-end service is weak, often ill-informed, and needs a good deal of work. They are certainly, certainly not as bad as Sprint, or even AT&T, but as compared to their unparalleled technical proficiency and coverage, Verizon's customer service is surprisingly weak.
  • MVNO's: Mobile Virtual Network Operators of Verizon, that is, carriers which effectively buy airtime from Verizon and use their spectrum but (try to) brand the service as their own, such as Straight Talk, Tracfone, etc, generally have similar features and coverage in Verizon's markets, and will benefit from Verizon's superior coverage for both voice and data. However, in most cases, when roaming to Verizon partner markets, MVNO customers, such as many of those of Straight Talk and Tracfone, will NOT be allowed to roam and have no coverage at all! (An example: Drive on I-70 west of Washington, DC for about 40 miles west of Frederick. Verizon's DC/00018 market coverage ends and US Cellular takes over. Verizon's customers will experience seamless handoffs to US Cellular for both voice and data calls, while Straight Talk and Tracfone will drop just past the I-70 rest area and have no coverage in the entire US Cellular market). Additionally, some MVNOs restrict the use of certain features, such as three-way-calling. These restrictions are generally the result of the MVNO, and don't reflect on any deficiency in Verizon's coverage. If you plan to use a Verizon MVNO such as Straight Talk or Tracfone, be sure (and this is easier said than done with their customer service!) that there is coverage where you need to use it and that despite their coverage maps, which seem to be copies of the Verizon coverage maps, they don't actually offer service, or rather, they restrict/deny service on Verizon's roaming partner systems, and thus be sure that you are covered regardless of what the maps indicate.
  • Final word: Overall, the top carrier technically and the most drop-free and trouble-free. Customer service needs work, but hopefully, due to their superior service, it won't need to be called too often. Pricing can be a bit stodgy as well and they often lag behind smaller, more competitive carriers, especially in terms of data and unlimited use plans.


    AT&T Wireless

    (AT&T Wireless Dropped Calls/Locations List)

    AT&T Wireless started as Seattle-based, 1900 MHz (only) competitor to Bell Atlantic/GTE/Alltel et. al. (which eventually merged to form Verizon), Cingular Wireless, and Nextel, around the same time that other 1900 MHz "PCS" carriers were starting up, such as Sprint PCS (which eventually bought/took over, and subsequently ruined Nextel), Voicestream (with the "parrot logo", eventually bought out by T-Mobile), and others.

    AT&T Wireless was the first carrier (around late 2002) to offer truly unlimited voice calling, both inbound and outbound, with no long distance or "toll-delivery" charges (charges to send calls while roaming or out of a customer's local calling/home market). AT&T Wireless's inception and early days of service also demonstrates how bloated and "nickel and diming" many other carriers (Bell Atlantic, GTE, AirTouch, McCaw/Cell One, etc....) at the time were, which charged their own customers to roam in their own markets, so that if a Bell Atlantic/00008 Philadelphia area customer were to drive to Bell Atlantic's Washington DC (00018) market, the given customer would pay (a) a higher per minute rate, (b) a "daily roaming fee" (eliminated at some point around 2000), (c) toll/long distance charges to call outside of the DC market, and (d) toll-delivery charges for Bell Atlantic to carry the call (over their own network) to DC to ring the mobile subscriber roaming in the DC market. (Some of these charges were a result of stodgy FCC rulings which required arms-length dealings between wireless and more traditional wireline services, such as long-distance, but the rates which were charged were likely significantly higher than the actual cost to the carriers, and likely served as a good source of profit until AT&T Wireless started service and eliminated all such charges.)

    This is a good example of why North America needs a competitive market to maximize cost/value to consumers, as carriers left to their own devices without much competitive influence will generally try to obtain as much as they can from customers (who have little choice in an UN-competitive market but to pay).

    AT&T Wireless's introductory $99 per month unlimited plan, with no airtime, long distance/toll, or roaming charges was the only one like it at the time. Unlike Sprint PCS (which also did not charge for roaming outside of a subscriber's home market, nor for toll-delivery to the roaming subscriber and "First Incoming Minute Free") or Nextel (which around the same time started offering unlimited incoming calls, also without any roaming or toll delivery charges), AT&T Wireless's product was the progenitor of the cellular pricing model which all carriers employ today: unlimited voice minutes, no long distance/toll charges anywhere in the US, and no roaming charges.

    However, like most 1900 MHz entrants into the market at the time, coverage was limited, and the 1900 MHz spectrum didn't propagate into buildings well, and was hard to fully cover topographically challenging areas (such as Vermont, Colorado, the California Sierras, etc.). Thus, due to AT&TWS's limited coverage (as were the service areas of Sprint, Voicestream, and to an extent Nextel as well), the more established carriers (Verizon/Alltel/GTE/AirTouch/Cingular), with their A/B 800 MHZ licenses and larger coverage areas, were able to maintain their rate plans which did asses all sorts of charges for a few years longer.

    Eventually, AT&T Wireless merged with Cingular (with AT&T Wireless customers being labeled as "blue" and Cingular customers as "orange" for the colors of their respective carriers prior to the merger), Verizon was formed from Bell Atlantic, NYNEX, PrimeCo, and GTE, Voicestream was bought by T-Mobile, and Nextel was bought out by Sprint, resulting in the four major carriers which currently (2016) operate today. But it should be noted, and AT&T Wireless (Seattle/Blue), by virtue of it's foresight and a competitive wireless market, laid the groundwork for the modern rate basis for North American cellular service.

    While the merger with Cingular held out the promise of a vastly improved network (AT&T "blue" customers could benefit from the much larger and widely built-out Cingular network, along with the benefit of the original 800 MHz A/B spectrum), service did not really improve too much, and besides being subjected to the usual billing and price-plan integration issues which typically follow any merger, AT&T Wireless/blue customers saw no immediate (or even mid-term) benefit from the merger in terms of coverage. And, with other carriers beginning to offer truly unlimited airtime products (Nextel, Sprint, and eventually Verizon), many of whom had superior coverage footprints to AT&T/Blue, 800 MHz frequencies (including Nextel's exclusive range for iDen), the AT&T Wireless/Blue service plans were no longer competitive and offered inferior service in terms of coverage and dropped calls.

    While AT&T in the late 2000's claimed to have "the fewest dropped calls" (see the AT&T Wireless Dropped Call List for details on their "Fewest Dropped Calls" advertising campaign and the questionable methods and metrics employed to attempt to support the claim), they in fact appeared to be getting worse, and the increased in drops and distorted GSM calls are reflected on the aforementioned list.

    In the past few years, from 2014 onwards to now (2016), it appears that a good deal of progress has been made by the merged AT&T Wireless/Blue and Cingular Wireless/Orange (henceforth AT&T Wireless), and many of the drops, which occurred way too often on roads and transit corridors which were heavily traveled and which even carriers like Sprint were able to cover well, have been remedied.

    However, there still remain a significantly higher number of drops on AT&T Wireless's network which do not occur on Verizon, in greater proportion than one would expect the difference (if any) to be between the two top American carriers. While we find that in areas where AT&T Wireless has good, strong coverage, their GSM over-the-air protocol offers superior voice quality, slightly less latency, more life-like voice reproduction, and generally comes closest to "landline-like" sound quality as compared to Verizon and Sprint's at times "metallic"/"robot" sounding and generally more distortive CDMA protocol, the apparent inability for AT&T Wireless to offer the same degree of "drop free" coverage as does Verizon thus reduces their general utility, and in our opinion places them in second place (and not really a close second) behind Verizon.

    A side consideration which mitigates in AT&T Wireless's favor: They appear to use the circuit-switched network of AT&T Long Distance, which offers superior voice quality and reproduction over most if not all other Long Distance networks, especially to locations outside of the US/Canada (who's telephone network was set up and run for many years by AT&T). AT&T Wireless calls seem to have the fewest echos on the long-distance component of a given cellular call, and international calls sound more or less the same in many cases to domestic ones - there is no "least cost routing" or use of Voice-over-IP or some other lesser-quality voice calling protocol.

    For example, ever since Verizon took over the failing MCI Communications, it appears, from both the reduced and at times more "echo-prone" landline as well as cellular long distance calls, that they have opted to utilize MCI's network for their long-distance calling, for landline, cellular (cellular back-haul), and international calling. For example, we've extensively tested and used faxing with Verizon and AT&T, from the same line in the US, to the same set of numbers in Europe and Hong Kong, and in most cases calls placed using "Verizon Long Distance" (eg, likely MCI's old network or some hybrid thereof) failed and/or produced distorted faxes at the received end, while those sent (again, from the same line to the same line) using AT&T Long Distance went through flawlessly.

    And it's not really necessary to test out the difference between AT&T's (Landline and Wireless) Long Distance and Verizon, Sprint, TMOs, et. al.'s long distance by (impracticably) sending faxes via a wireless phone; just dialing a number abroad, seeing how long the call set-up takes, and the quality of the sound, latency, and ability to hear background noise (usually filtered out by more Voip-ish protocols) will generally serve to indicate the superiority of AT&T's North American and Worldwide Long Distance Network.

    So, if North American and/or international long distance voice quality and the "very close to a local" sound and calling experience are important to you, and you use your phone in areas with good AT&T Wireless coverage (ie, areas where their drops won't be a problem and where the coverage adequately supports a conversation without audio drop-outs or distortion), then AT&T Wireless's GSM protocol's and long distance's voice quality may be the best choice.

    In general, then, where AT&T and Verizon both have similarly good coverage, the sound/audio quality of AT&T Wireless, both due to the GSM protocol which they employ as well as their superior long-distance connections, mitigate in favor of AT&T Wireless. For customers who don't travel much, and make use of their phones in generally fixed locations where there is good coverage, AT&TWS may be a better choice. However, generally, for customers who travel or commute regularly, who need dependable, drop-free coverage, AT&T is in many markets a poor second to Verizon's more robust and drop-free coverage. AT&T Wireless Summary:

  • Voice Service: Pros - In terms of voice quality, both due to their use of the GSM protocol and termination (interconnection) of calls using the AT&T Long Distance Network (and likely for backhaul as well), the audio quality on AT&T Wireless in areas of good/strong coverage places them above other carriers, even GSM carriers such as T-Mobile, which seems to use a VoIP or "VoIP-ish" sounding method of connecting cellular calls to the telephone network, vitiating the GSM protocol's benefits of lower latency and superior sound quality. Cons - AT&T Wireless calls tend to drop a lot more often than Verizon's, and in areas of poor coverage the GSM protocol (or perhaps AT&T's implementation thereof?) seems less able to obtain and hold a signal as compared to Verizon. This likely could be remedied if AT&T Wireless had the same extensive coverage, network, and signal propagation as Verizon, but for whatever reason they seem not to.)
  • Data Service: Pros - AT&T's CDPD data service (which ran over it's analog network but was digital itself) provided for excellent, albeit slow, data connections which were resilient and allowed for long periods of poor (or no) coverage, during which connections were kept open ("alive") until better coverage was reached, such as in the case of a moving vehicle or train. Unfortunately, when CDPD went away with analog service, so did the resiliency and tenacity of their data service, and their 3G and 4G data products are affected by the same degree of drops more or less as AT&T's voice service. (See the AT&T Dropped Call List, which also includes some data drops, for details.)
  • Call Features: - Excellent options, due to their use of the GSM protocol. Additionally, ISDN-ish like information is passed to the end user, such as when a call is forwarded to the AT&TWS phone (instead of dialed directly), when supervision is returned (eg, when an outbound/dialed call is answered and starts billing; this can be annoying at times since the GSM protocol does not generally allow customers to mute a call or dial DTMF (Touch Tones) until a call is supervised (answered and billing starts), but it IS useful in determining whether or not a call has answered, something which is harder to do via CDMA phones. Besides superior call progress information and monitoring, the GSM protocol provides extensive call forwarding features (No Answer Transfer, Busy Transfer, Unavailable Transfer, Unconditional Transfer) and queries (via *#61*/NAT, *#62#/Unavail, *#67#/Busy, and *#21#/Uncond) as to forwarding status. GSM also allows for inbound call waiting merges (which CDMA does not), the conferencing and de-conferencing of either or both legs of a call, the re-establishment of de-conferenced calls without having to hang up or initiate a new call, and for transferring calls to different destinations based (using the NAT and Busy-Transfer features). Customers who enjoy the ability to have precise control over your calls, more typical of an office phone than a traditional landline, will immediately realize the benefits of GSM's call display, control, and forwarding options, which are significantly more robust than CDMA's more POTS-ish/residential-ish (yet still solid and well-implemented) call processing/forwarding features.
  • Customer Service - A weaker than average spot for AT&TWS; more often than not customer service is ill-informed, interested mainly in upselling, unable to resolve issues in a single call or even after multiple calls, and basically typifies the poor state of customer service evident in America these days (2016). While not as bad as Sprint (was, which was horrid), one often gets the impression that more so than most customer service departments, AT&TWS' is there to ensure that unless you have a very important issue (or you want to add new services, read: pay them some more), they want to discourage you from having to spend the money on actually hiring competent people and, by having customers endlessly wait and wait, only to talk to someone who can't really/doesn't want to help, that most customers will just "go away" and "not bother us" rather than have any actual inclination towards resolving customers issues.
  • MVNO's: Mobile Virtual Network Operators of AT&TWS - generally a good bet in terms of obtaining (hopefully) better customer service, and as AT&T Wireless is the primary GSM carrier in the US and (as far as we can tell) doesn't offer/need roaming access on T-Mobile's public network (nonwithstanding bandwidth sharing arrangements; eg, T-Mobile goes to AT&T when it's little network can't cover a given area, but definitely not the other way around!), any MVNO which uses AT&T's network will/should have full use of it and thus not have "roaming holes" as often does T-Mobile (they don't allow roaming everywhere on AT&T) or T-Mobile MVNOs/resellers. Thus, customers who prefer a given AT&T MVNO/reseller should generally find that outside of any AT&T "partner" roaming areas, they should experience the same level of coverage and service as an AT&TWS customer has, which is often more expansive than Verizon MVNOs/resellers which more often than not can not roam in large areas of the country (such as 70 miles west of Washington DC; see the Frederick, MD area of the Verizon Drops List (Voice) for an example of how MVNOs using Verizon, such as Straight Talk, will notallow roaming less than 70 miles west of the Nation's Capital along I-70, creating a large gap in coverage in a relatively heavily populated area).
  • Final word: Overall, AT&T Wireless ranks in our opinion as the second best carrier, which in areas of good coverage is relatively trouble-free, but still suffers from an inordinate number of dropped calls while driving and poor in-building signal propagation in many larger urban markets (NYC and Boston, for example; are they using their 800MHz spectrum for GSM/voice in these markets? It's hard to understand why their in-building coverage is so poor compared to Verizon's in these urban areas if they are...). AT&TWS Customer service is a weak spot, and the less we have to deal with them the better, which serves as a disincentive to add any new services or for that matter make any changes - much like not changing the transmission fluid in and old car (which purportedly can do more damage than leaving it alone), we just prefer to not deal with AT&T's customer service so that they can't "mess up" anything on the accounts. Like Verizon, AT&T's pricing can be a bit stodgy as well and they often lag behind smaller, more competitive carriers, especially in terms of data and unlimited use plans, but they seem to generally be a step or two in front of Verizon (which really, really wants to keep a tight reign on data). AT&T's GSM protocol offers many more call features and more robust status reporting than Verizon/Sprint's CDMA protocol, and, when in areas of good coverage, sounds significantly better than CDMA, in no small part due to the call transport of AT&T's superior long-distance and international long-distance network. This is especially true for call abroad, where AT&T's IDDD International Long Distance service delivers clear and latency-free calls worldwide, compared to many other carriers with lesser and/or Voip-ish sounding international circuits.


    Sprint Wireless

    (Sprint Dropped Calls/Locations List)

    And then there's Sprint... We had high hopes for Sprint when they started as a "4th Option" in the early 2000's. The "A" and "B" carrier duopoly was only starting to be penetrated by Nextel at the time, and Sprint Wireless came along (from the long distance carrier which was years later sold off when long distance became a more or less a commoditized service) and offered a fourth option, oriented more towards mobile consumer service as compared to Nextel's more business-oriented offerings.

    Sprint's service was initially offered on (then) new spectrum in the 1900 MHz, or Personal Communications Service (PCS) band, and in fact, Sprint's branded name was "Sprint PCS" to reflect and differentiate itself from the A (non-wireline) and B (wireline, usually the Bell Company or incumbent local exchange) carriers on the original A/B 800MHz licenses.

    Sprint's CDMA "all digital" network blended in with Sprint Long Distance's "all fiber" (digital) network, and was promoted as end-to-end clear digital communications from cellular handset to end destination (inasmuch as CDMA sounds "clear" - we feel GSM sounds more natural and lifelike than CDMA; see the Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless discussions, above). Long-distance was, after some experimenting with charging for calls outside of a large regional area, ultimately discarded, and long distance calling was eventually included on most Sprint plans, so that calls outside of a Sprint subscriber's local/regional calling area were "free" (no long distance component; only "airtime" was charged when applicable), and "call delivery charges" (long distance charges to deliver a call to a subscriber outside of their local calling area, such as when they were roaming) were eliminated as well. (The A/B carriers had for years charged 25 cents per minute or more to "deliver" calls to markets outside of a given subscriber's home market, as well as to place long distance calls outside of a given subscriber's local calling area; the competitive pressure from Sprint and Nextel which eliminated these charges serves as testament to the downward pressure on pricing which a competitive cellular market affords, and why currently (2016) having four major carriers and even more resellers serves as a continuing and effective market mechanism to provide the best pricing for consumers.)

    Sprint offered additional pricing innovations, such as "first incoming minute free", and no roaming charges anywhere on Sprint's network (A/B carriers such as NYNEX, Bell Atlantic, Cellular One, GTE/Mobilnet, McCaw Wireless, US Cellular, and lots of other carriers set up along interstates and major roads mainly to capture roaming revenue and/or be bought by the larger carriers would regularly charge a $3 per day "daily roaming fee" after the first call in their markets, plus ~$1 per minute airtime, plus long distance, making roaming highly lucrative to the carriers). The introduction of Sprint PCS's service and their 'no roaming charges" policy was ground-breaking, and very quickly the established A/B carriers, which derived a good deal of revenue from roaming, had to lower and eventually drop all roaming charges in order to remain competitive.

    Sprint was also the first carrier (from our recollection) to offer reliable and nearly ubiquitous CallID delivery - with most other carriers receiving CallerID in roaming markets or even in segments of a customer's home market could be spotty at best, and more often than not, even though a given caller's ID was available to a carrier, the proper Caller ID was not delivered, whereas with Sprint, even from the outset, this was appreciably less of a problem.

    Sprint also advertised that it "built it's network from the ground up", and didn't suffer from the market boundaries and regulatory issues which the older, established A/B carriers had, and thus, for example, unanswered calls while roaming went seamlessly to voicemail, calling features worked flawlessly throughout Sprint's service area, and all calls were CDMA (digital) so there were no handoff issues between analog to digital (or the other way around), except when roaming onto Verizon's or another carriers' network.

    So in general, the introduction of Sprint PCS served to force the cellular market to reform in a number of consumer-friendly ways, and move the overall market away from "gouging" roamer/roaming practices, Balkanized markets and service areas, the lack of the transportability of calling features while traveling and roaming, and, in general, was at the vanguard of the emerging cellular market by providing a low(er)-cost, seamless, and innovative product beyond which the established carriers of the time were offering.

    But...as with most metrics of a mobile service, the phone must work well in a mobile environment, and this is where Sprint's luster began to wane (and still to an extent does today, over 15 years later), and, in conjunction with their horrendous customer service (which again, doesn't appear to be all that much better 15 years later) and at times questionable billing practices (which if you had asked 10 customer service reps to explain - after waiting 30 minutes for each of course - one would receive 10 different and often contradictory answers form; see immediately below for one of the more egregious cases), Sprint, in our opinion after years of tortured interactions with them, ranks lowest of the top 4 carriers without question. (As just one example of their confusing at best (and deceptive at worst) billing shenanigans, in 2013 Sprint was apparently up to their usual tricks by placing ambiguous addenda into their service agreement(s), in this case modifying/eliminating unlimited 4G data accounts so that they were no longer unlimited and subsequently began charging for use accordingly as per a seemingly arbitrarily assigned data plan which no one had agreed to!, in violation of their contract/service agreement - Sprint basically seemed to be saying: "You know that unlimited 4G data device you went out and bought, and that 4G unlimited service you thought you were paying for? Well, we just changed your plan to something which we think is so much better!! It's no longer unlimited, _and_, we're actually going to _bill you_ without you agreeing to it since we slipped a little ambiguous line about data plans between two columns of otherwise barely-related text in your invoice a few months ago...Aren't you lucky?!". Needless to say, this required hours and hours of arguing on the phone with them, and we finally just dumped them rather than continue to waste time with them, and filed a complaint with the state AG's office and the FCC (which the Sprint corporate lady with whom we were dealing tried to get us not to do by saying something like "You can do that, but all it will do is have us write back to them and they won't bother to enforce whatever rule or contract term you think we violated, so why both to call them up?" (To which we answered, "Maybe if everyone else called them up about your questionable billing practices and lack of notice you wouldn't be so cavalier and flippant about you apparent fraudulent practices!")

    And the above more recent example isn't an isolated instance of problems with Sprint both in terms of customer service and/or billing: most of our experiences with their customer service and billing depts have been typified by protracted, time-wasting calls, generally with people who claim they are "empowered" to resolve issues but in actuality get nothing done, necessitating another long call with someone else who claims the matter will be escalated, yet still nothing gets done, after which we escalate the call to the corporate level, and we are assured something will be done, and nothing is (or it's not the proper resolution and just makes things worse), and so on.

    The file we keep on our Sprint accounts (more "ex-"accounts than current ones) is likely the largest file of all the carriers, with notes of all the reps with whom we've spoken, what they assured would be done, how it rarely was, who the matter was escallated to, what wasn't again done, and so on. In the mid-2000's, after being initially pleased with Sprint's pricing and how their model was a refreshing change from the (then) A/B carrier duopoly, we realized that we were spending so much time on the phone with Sprint each and every month just addressing billing issues that whatever savings were experienced using Sprint weren't worth the cost of having to spend hours and hours every month arguing and fighting with them just to get the bill correct!

    And looking back, this may just have been their (unintentional?) motivation in having such horrid billing and customer service departments and practices -- it was often so difficult and trying to deal with them that we basically didn't bother to call them about issues which were not egregious, and their poor customer service simply dissuaded us (and likely) others from sitting on the phone with them for hours trying to resolve the usual issues which always seemed to find their way onto our invoices with them or with our service(s).

    Indeed, we generally had a semi-serious "Do not call Sprint!" policy, which basically meant: "Every time you call Sprint they will keep you on the phone for hours, get nothing done, and likely mess things up even further, so now that after all these years things are working in such a way that there is nothing we thankfully need to call them about, do not ever call Sprint, since if you do, they will manage to mess up all the 'progress' we've managed to achieve with them over the years and waste all the effort we expended dealing with Sprint's billing and customer service departments!"

    Yet despite our "Don't call Sprint!" policy, which helped for a couple of years while we enjoyed the peace and bliss of not having to deal with them, as time passed, and as other carriers began to offer better rateplans and in nearly every way eclipse Sprint, we needed to update our plan with them to obtain something more competitive. Their inability to update a simple rateplan, and to bill accordingly, was the final straw with them (not to mention their relatively poor coverage, see below), and after hours on the phone arguing with them about their (then newly introduced) unlimited rateplans which weren't apparently as "unlimited" as the word "unlimited" seems to mean, we just got fed up, and disconnected service with them. Their retentions department had a field day with our cancellation call, and kept offering more and more for us to stay with them, including "upgraded phones" (if we agreed to sign multi-year contracts with them, so we could loose more sleep and experience multi-year monthly bouts of aggravation with them no doubt!). Finally, after half an hour of begging and offering and used-car-salesman "Let me check with my manager and get back to you!" nonsense (even though we made it clear from the outset that we wished to cancel, we were asked "What can Sprint offer you to keep you as customers?" and they were told "There isn't enough money in the world that could keep us as customers of Sprint - TURN THE LINES OFF NOW!", and that apparently finally made it clear to them! Ridiculous...!!

    No one has regretted that decision for one second, and transitioning the services to Verizon resulted in a degree of peace of mind which we never had experienced under Sprint! :) (not to mention the superior coverage...)

    And speaking of coverage, well, here's another area where Sprint needs to make vast improvements (and to stop relying on their crutch of roaming on Verizon coverage in the many areas where they simply have none!). Sprint's coverage area, while gradually improving, is still quite limited, and (much like T-Mobile, below), once out of large metropolitan areas and/or urban corridors, Sprints coverage can be lacking. In such instances, Sprint customers are generally allowed to roam on Verizon's significantly larger network, and oftentimes don't even realize that they are no longer on Sprint's (that us, however, unless they roam "too often" on Verizon, ie, they cost Sprint too much money and then Sprint invokes their service agreement and either terminate roaming on Verizon or the entire given customer's service).

    Sprint also lacks coverage (even now in 2017) in major transportation hubs, such as under the Park Avenue "air rights" Metro North tunnels in New York City (heading north out of Grand Central Terminal) (while AT&T Wireless has coverage, and Verizon's is more limited, and none on T-Mobile, of course), in the East River Tubes and Hudson River Tubes heading east and west from Penn Station respectively (Verizon offers drop-free coverage over the entire length, from the Sunnyside Yards on Long Island all the way to New Jersey), on WMATA/DC Metro between stations (Verizon's voice/data services have adequate, but not drop free, coverage between stations). See the Srint Dropped Call List for additional details pertaining to places and locations where Sprint drops calls, including heavily traveled locations such as the above where it would be expected that Sprint in this day and age offers coverage but does not.

    While it's convenient for Sprint and their customers to have the crutch of Verizon to serve as a backup CDMA carrier for the many areas outside of large cities or urban corridors which Sprint doesn't cover, there are generally no handoffs between the two networks, and as Sprint customers transit out of Sprint's coverage area, calls do not generally hand off between the two, and the Sprint customer's call will drop and exiting the Sprint coverage area, requiring a new call to be placed while roaming on Verizon. The repeated aggravation of having to disconnect (or be disconnected) upon leaving Sprint's more limited coverage area so as to continue a call or data session on Verizon severely limits the utility of Sprint's network.

    Additionally, as is the case with many Mobile Network Virtual Operators (or MVNOs), Sprint's MVNOs, such as Boost, do not alllow roaming on Verizon, and thus even in areas where post-pay Sprint subscribers have good coverage vis a vis roaming on Verizon, a MVNO customer, such as one on Boost, will have no coverage in the same area.

    In general, like all of the top four carriers, as time passes coverage generally improves as more sites are added, existing large sites are segmented into smaller ones, handoff and capacity issues are addressed, etc. And indeed Sprint's coverage has improved - there are many drop-free highway corridors which a Sprint customer can currently traverse without experiencing difficulties which only a few years ago suffered from multiple drop areas. However, Sprint still lags very far behind Verizon is terms of the size/scope of it's coverage area, coverage in transit hubs and other areas where coverage would be expected, and drops along major corridors and roads which should have been detected, addressed and correct years ago. Both Sprint and Verizon are CDMA carriers, and while Verizon benefits to some extent from it's 800MHz licenses, there is no technical impediment preventing Sprint from offering comparably reliable service on it's higher frequency spectrum. The fact that after all this time they have failed to address these issues significantly reduces the incentive and value proposition a prospective customer would have to select Sprint, when Verizon uses the same protocol and offers significantly superior and problem-free coverage.

    While Sprint has it's place in the (currently) competitive cellular marketplace, it's early aspirations as a true nationwide carrier to compete with carriers such as Verizon and AT&T Wireless are still that - just hopes. They have never developed their coverage footprint and quality of service to match their much larger superiors. And while they do offer competitive products, such as their "unlimited" data plans (who knows how 'unlimited' they are or how long they will remain given Sprint's arguably deceptive track record in this area!) which exert competitive downward market pressures on the other carriers, and thus have some utility, overall, the average consumer would likely be better served by Verizon (if they travel a lot and need solid, trouble-free and drop-free coverage) or T-Mobile (if they were able to tolerate Sprint's lesser coverage area but were just as fed up with their customer service as we were/are).

    Perhaps with the recent Japanese acquisition of Sprint and the (hopefully) increased subsequent investment which will be made in it's network (or it's customer service, for that matter), Sprint may one day enjoy a large, drop-free coverage network as does Verizon, but as things stand in early 2016, it's hard to see the value proposition in Sprint in terms of coverage, reliability, or service, and they rank, in our opinion, lowest of all the four major carriers.

    Sprint Wireless Summary:

  • Voice Service: Pros - Very few "pros" per se, that it, there is nothing we can really think of with respect to Sprint's voice service which is not easily eclipsed by Verizon in terms of service area and reliability, or AT&T or T-Mobile in terms of the generally superior sound quality of GSM (as compared to Sprint's and Verizon's CDMA protocol). Cons - While improving, Sprint still drops calls regularly in areas which are heavily traveled, which they are or reasonably should be aware of, and which they have done little to nothing (at least as evidenced by the continued poor results) in 15+ years of operation. The voice quality or sound of CDMA tends to be a bit "metallic" and doesn't sound as natural as GSM, used by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. Roaming on Verizon is generally available (if you have to go with Sprint we'd recommend a phone which can "force roaming" (onto Verizon) and leave it that way as often as possible in areas of marginal coverage), but the lack of handoffs from Sprint to Verizon is frustrating, and only exacerbated but Sprint's limited coverage area.
  • Data Service: Pros - Unlimited plans with relatively high speeds in most urban/suburban areas and some corridor services; Cons - Sprint's track record on meaning "unlimited" when they say "unlimited" is clouded by they way they handled 4G/WiMax accounts and how they with little (or buried) notice summarily eliminated these accounts and placed customers on per-use accounts, often at higher monthly base rates, and with metered data. More generally, their data service is only as good and robust as the network it is on, and as per the discussion above, Sprint's network is significantly smaller and more prone to drop-outs and drops than the top two carriers, and thus, even if Sprint's apparent shenanigans and 'loose' interpretation of the word "unlimited" are over and they really do mean unlimited, we find their network to be not much faster (nor slower) than the top two carriers, and in many cases, T-Mobile, (which has similar coverage issues to Sprint), offers significantly faster data speeds in roughly the same market areas as Sprint does. (And pricing and especially customer service is in our experiences better with TMO.)
  • Call Features: - Sprint, like Verizon, offers more limited call-forwarding features than it's GSM brethren, and Sprint customers can only use unconditional forwarding (*72 + 10 digit number + SEND (dial) to activate, *720 + SEND (dial) to deactivate), and a combination of no-answer-transfer, busy-transfer, and unavailable transfer via *71 (*71 + 10 digit number + SEND (dial) to activate, *710 + SEND (dial) to deactivate.
  • Customer Service - The above discussion lends some insight into our experiences with Sprint's customer service (if it can be called that); there have been numerous articles in a variety of magazines which indicate it's even worse than we experienced. In fact, an article from the late 2000's indicates that Sprint disconnects customers who call to complain too much!; while we've never experienced this, perhaps - just maybe - if Sprint didn't have so many problems to complain about, perhaps they would have fewer customers complaining to them! Also as noted above, one of the main reasons that we made every effort to never, ever change any options or features on our Sprint accounts was the often arduous and protracted conversations which would have to be made with support and billing afterwards to ensure that the prices which they advertised and offered were indeed what we were billed, which eventually led to our "Don't call Sprint!" policy since it just wasn't worth the effort dealing with them. Perhaps they've improved more recently (there's no way they could get worse!), but we're done with calling them and dealing with them - it's just not worth the trouble.
  • MVNO's: Mobile Virtual Network Operators of Sprint will generally have the same coverage issues as Sprint, and in many cases, due to the lack of roaming on Verizon, effectively have a significantly smaller service area. Thus, while a Sprint customer driving on I-91 in Vermont will generally be allowed to roam on Verizon's 00300 system if they venture east or west of I-91 and thus outside of Sprint's coverage footprint, a Virgin Mobile or Boost Mobile customer (both Sprint MVNO's/resellers) will not, and likely not have much of any coverage. Many Sprint MVNO's, such as Boost for example, also restrict the call forwarding options (and sometimes this also varies from phone to phone), so that Boost customers oftentimes can only use the unconditional (*72/*720) call forwarding and do not have access to No-Answer/Busy/Unavailable forwarding.
  • Final word: After an impressive and competitive initial rollout in the early 2000's, Sprint degraded into a nightmare of barely improving coverage, inexcusably poor customer service, billing errors and incompatible networks (vis a vis the Nextel acquisition, which also ruined Nextel in the process), and even as of Spring 2016, still has not redeemed itself nor made the investments in facilities and staffing to bring itself up to par with it's competitors. One could only hope that the recent investment in Sprint by the Japanese telecom firm SoftBank will allow Sprint some breathing room to make much needed improvements, as well as to replace key management personnel, as the failures of Sprint can not be attributed solely to a lack of funding. While Sprint has made some recent efforts to stem and escape from it's seemingly endless devolution, it still has a long way to go, and thus ranks last for us as a carrier to recommend.



    T-Mobile

    (T-Mobile Dropped Calls/Locations List)

    T-Mobile (TMO) provides an attractive, but significantly more limited, alternative to Verizon and AT&T Wireless, and avoids many of the problems which still persist at Sprint. Additionally, with T-Mobile's international unlimited (often only 2G, though) data plans (which are included on most new plans as of 2015), uniform and low international roaming rate of 20 cents per minute, and other international GSM roaming features, TMO offers the best "single number" service for frequent travelers outside of the US.

    T-Mobile started out in the mid-1990's, around the same time as Sprint and a bit after Nextel, when competition was just getting started in the US cellular industry. Initially it was named "VoiceStream PCS" under its then owner, Western Wireless, which eventually built out it's footprint to a number of larger American cities. However, some major markets, such as New York City and Boston, were not included in the earlier years, thus delimiting the utility of their alternative cellular product and not really serving as much of a competitor to the established A/B (non-wireline/wireline) carriers.

    After some consolidation with other GSM-based competitive "PCS" carriers, such as Omnipoint (a Northeastern GSM PCS carrier which had the "parrot" logo) which allowed Voicestream to move into Omnipoint's Northeastern markets, and Aerial Communications (Midwest, South, and the I-4 Orlando/St. Pete/Tampa corridor), Voicestream was acquired by Deutsche Telekom in 2001, and was re-branded as "T-Mobile (USA)", the "T-Mobile" component being the same as Deutsche Telekom branded its other cellular properties worldwide.

    With the Deutsche Telekom takeover, as well the more recent acquisitions of SunCom (which supposedly only had coverage in Southeastern states but we recall roaming on them in New Hampshire along the Spaulding Turnpike), T-Mobile began to develop a nationwide network and by the late 2000's had less of a need for roaming on AT&T Wireless (or carriers which AT&T wireless had acquired). While this may have saved TMO some money, it effectively reduced the overall area of TMO's "coverage", and as TMO has nowhere near the coverage area which AT&T Wireless customers enjoy, TMO customers are often dropped, disconnected, and/or experience no coverage/no service in areas where AT&T, Verizon, and at times even Sprint offer relatively strong cellular coverage. This lack of a competitively large coverage area (at least compared to ATTWS and Verizon; Sprint is somewhat, not not significantly better than TMO in terms of coverage) is a major limitation of T-Mobile's overall service, and why they are placed last in in terms of coverage area of all the four major carriers.

    As noted above, T-Mobile uses the GSM protocol, which has generally superior voice quality and more "phone company"/land-line line voice quality than the often distorted and metallic-sounding CDMA protocol utilized by Verizon and Sprint, and with somewhat less latency (voice delay) than CDMA. (See the cellular, landline, and voip latency discussion for additional details.) Thus, in areas of strong, good coverage, if a T-Mobile phone were to call a traditional landline (copper or SLIC/multiplexed) or some new technology with the same specifications of copper, such as Fiber-to-the-Curb (FTTC, like AT&T U-Verse's landline component), Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH, like Verizon's FiOS landline component), or business T-1s with DIDs, the sound quality and audio delay would be less than is a Verizon or Sprint customer - both of which use the CDMA protocol - were to call.

    Note that at times TMO seems to use some form of Voip-ish "backhaul" (how TMO takes the signal from the cell tower and interconnects with the landline/terrestrial network), and calls placed via TMO have a good deal of latency and echoing; we're not sure what causes this but it seems to vary from location to location independent on how strong the air interface signal is (the signal strength), and we can only conclude that this pertains to backhaul issues. This isn't too common, though, although it is annoying when it occurs. (We also note that AT&T Wireless, also a GSM carrier, doesn't see to have these sort of backhaul (or whatever they are) issues on it's network and calls at nearly all locations of good coverage experience the same call characteristics, voice quality, and low latency.

    Overall, TMO's coverage area is lacking, but improving. Without the ATTWS roaming in areas where it was previously (prior to 2009) allowed, TMO has a lot of catching up to do, and as of now in 2016, is in no way competitive with ATTWS or Verizon outside of major urban areas or corridors, and experiences a good deal of drops (or just areas of no coverage) where especially Verizon, and to a lesser extent AT&T, do not. (See the T-Mobile Dropped Call and Coverage List for details.)

    As to data, TMO's data service in urban/developed areas is generally quite fast (with low data latency), and 4G coverage in our experience is as fast or faster than most of the other carriers' top speeds, and offers a similar experience (again, in areas of good coverage) so a slow DSL connection, without the gaps and stops for streaming data which we sometimes experience with Sprint. However, outside of their urban/corridor footprint, T-Mobile's data product quickly drops from 4G to 2G (or no data at all), while their competitors manifest no problems with their data services in the exactly the same location. This again demonstrates T-Mobile's main failing -- too limited coverage! Additionally, in areas which straddle 4G to 3G to 2G coverage markets (or where they allow data roaming), the lack of a highly robust and built-out network can often affect data throughput as the customer's phone will continuously "cycle" between the 4G to the 2G or 3G services, which, while the cycling and synchronization is going on, prevents much of any data from being sent/received. This used to be a problem with Verizon, ATT, and Sprint, but have mostly been remedied as their networks developed and data services made more uniform (see the Verizon 1XRTT/EvDO cycle hangs discussion for an example of this issue manifested itself on Verizon during its implementation of EvDO data services). TMO still seems to be experiencing these issues and data service at the periphery of the current 4G footprint is "doubly" poor - firstly via the drop down to 2G from 4G, and secondly by delays caused by attempts to re-synchronize at 4G speeds each time a bit of 4G signal momentarily gets strong enough.

    Another peculiar issue with T-Mobile is that phones on TMO's network (from simple flip-phones to smartphones) appear to take an inordinately long period of time to re-establish their connections to the nearest tower after being out-of-coverage, such as when going through a tunnel or between underground train stations. With Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T Wireless, very shortly (if not immediately) after coverage returns, a given phone will show coverage, but with TMO, it can take a minute of more before phones on their network seem to "re-synchronize" and connect to TMO's network. This does not appear to be a GSM problem, since if two identical phones are used, one on AT&T and the other on TMO, and they both transit simultaneously through a tunnel where neither ATT nor TMO have coverage, upon emerging from the tunnel and back into coverage, AT&T will re-register almost immediately, while TMO can take from 15 seconds longer to over one minute longer, which is odd and quite frustrating.

    More recently (summer 2016), T-Mobile began to implement some frequency changes in the DC/Baltimore metro area (and possibly other areas as well) which caused customer who had enjoyed 4G data service to revert to 4G!

    In the DC/Baltimore areas (and likely elsewhere in the US with similar frequency constraints), as of late June, 2016, we've noticed that on more or less all "nearly 4G" High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) phones, such as the LG C-800 "My Touch" and similar non-LTE models, what used to indicate as "4G" data service is now showing up as only "2G". We suspect that this is due to T-Mobile's likely frequency shortage in the DC area (and many other areas as well), as it converts the 1700/2100 MHz bands to LTE ("true" 4G) only. HSPA (and it's variants, HSDPA and HSUPA; generally referred to as "HSPA" although there are speed and other differences) is an earlier nearly-4G technology which offers download speeds close to true 4G but somewhat slower upload speeds; latency is also a bit slower with HSPA than true 4G.

    Originally, around 2008 or 2009, T-Mobile ran HSPA on the 1700/2100 MHz bands which it owns/operates on, and later shared the spectrum with LTE ("true" 4G) when LTE was rolled out a few years later in 2014/2015. It appears from TMO's announcements that it is moving HSPA service off of 1700/2100 (which the older phones are designed to use for HSPA), and moving all HSPA service to the "AWS" 1900MHz spectrum, which while many older phones are able to use for voice calls, eg, talking, they are not able to use it for HSPA data access, causing many phones which used to show "4G" to now show only "2G". It is unclear if this frequency re-alignment (or "refarming" as it appears to be called) will eventually be effective in all TMO markets or just those without sufficient LTE 1700/2100 bandwidth to also accommodate the slightly older HSPA data service.

    Thus, for those customers who purchased a T-Mobile phone (or compatible/unlocked GSM model) from maybe 2012 or earlier, in markets where TMO has moved HSPA to "AWS"/1900 Mhz frequencies, unless your phone is able to handle data on 1900 MHz, it is likely that service will be reverted to 2G only speeds. This seems to be the case throughout the entire DC, Virginia, Maryland (including Baltimore) markets, and possibly into the Philadelphia market as well. Rather than keep a little bit of 1700/2100 MHz spectrum available for HSPA phones which can not use data on 1900 MHz, T-Mobile just effectively blocked all customers with phones more than a few years old from using 4G data!

    On the other hand, a particularly outstanding bright spot for T-Mobile is their excellent and competent customer service (which appears to be entirely US/Canada based; No! On Feb 23rd, 2017, we spoke to some idiot in the Philippines who had no idea how to process a simple credit card update, nor transfer the call back to the States when it was obvious she had no idea what she was doing - a disappointment as we felt that T-Mobile used to offer nearly 100% US/Canada based customer service and now we're forced to deal with the Philippines call center(s) just like Verizon and AT&T, which, for whatever reason, seem much less competant than their US/Canada based counterparts; just as an aside - the call to update the billing credit card took 15 minutes to the Philippines and resulted in nothing, a later call to a US-based call center took 30 seconds and we were all set; take from that what you will... ), with people who (in the US) know their jobs and appear to be well-trained and who have the authority to resolve problems themselves without endless transfers to higher-up agents as is common with some of the other carriers. We've had far fewer disappointing customer service interactions, from their staff at the wireless stores, to billing issues, or general customer service queries, than with any other carrier. Most issues are handled in the first call, and don't require an endless litany of follow-up calls when the problem was not properly addressed. We can put aside a lot of T-Mobile's failures or weak spots when it is offset buy such uncharacteristically efficient and competent customer service!

    Another area where T-Mobile stands well ahead of all of its competitors is that of international roaming, both in terms of North American roaming in Canada and Mexico, as well as for customers who travel offshore of the continent.

    In terms of roaming in Canada and Mexico, T-Mobile as of July 2015 began to offer "home" area calling in both Canada and Mexico, as well as free calling to/from/within the US, Canada, and Mexico, essentially making all of North America a single calling market!. Voice calls, text messages, and data rates are the same in Canada and Mexico as they are in the US, with no roaming or other charges within/between the three countries! Even as of Spring 2016, no other US carrier is offering such an attractive and simple plan -- Verizon wants $2 per day for essentially the same plan, and AT&T Wireless has their usual convoluted rate basis where voice is included in your home rate but data is charged separately, or something like that (we're still having a hard time figuring it out! ;) ). So the T-Mobile plan for unified US/Canadian/Mexican service is groundbreaking and one of the reasons why, despite their poor coverage, we use T-Mobile since they make up for their poor coverage by exceptional value and simplicity in other aspects of their service, such as North American pricing.

    Outside of North America, T-Mobile continues to be on the vanguard of simple and low-cost international mobile service by offering unlimited international data roaming (at slower 2G speeds, though), unlimited international text messaging, and 20 cent per minute calling to/from the US in over 140 countries. As with the North American plan, no other US carrier can match this, although Verizon does offer a $10 per day plan (outside of Canada and Mexico) with full 4G data where available, and data, voice and text messages are charged as per a given US-based customer's home rates are (including unlimited). While Verizon's plan effectively offers free calling to/from the US, making the plan very attractive for customers who need to call back to and/or receive calls from the US on a regular basis, the $10 per day add-on charge is quite high, and in many cases T-Mobile's (free) international roaming plan would be a better value. Sprint also offers a similar plan to T-Mobile, it seems, and as usual, it's hard to decipher exactly what AT&T's plan is and in which countries it would apply.

    And finally, although we don't get into the nuances of pricing here as plans change so often, another bright spot with T-Mobile is they don't use the "taxes and other fees" section of a given cellphone bill as a means to ridiculously "enhance" revenue like most other carriers do. We've seen Verizon Wireless bills in New York City or San Francisco where the $50 plan which one signs up for ends up costing $79 per month with all the taxes and fees. For example, a $50 Verizon plan in NYC will result in a bill for around $67 per month, if not a bit more, while the same $50 plan with T-Mobile will result in a bill for $56.50 or so per month - quite an appreciable difference!

    Why is this the case? Well, first off, Verizon and some other carriers charge you a "fee fee"! Yes, they actually charge for a "fee" for billing you all the "fees"!! They call it an "administrative charge", that is, a charge for complying with all the government mandated fees and taxes, but, well, isn't that a cost of doing business??? Shouldn't that be part of the base price which Verizon charges??? (It's like going to a gas station where they advertise "Gas! 1 cent per gallon!" and when you get your receipt you see it's $5 per gallon with 'distribution charge', and 'state gas surtax' and 'pump cleaning and painting fee' and 'fee to charge all the fees'!) T-Mobile doesn't seem to play these silly and arguably deceptive games - they charge you the taxes which they are required to charge, and the other "fees" which most other carriers charge are made part of the rateplan, which we think is the more honest and straightforward way to do business...

    Overall, T-Mobile provides a nice alternative to Verizon and AT&T Wireless in urban/suburban and corridor areas (like I-95 in Eastern Connecticut, or US-1 through Southeastern PA), that is, areas in, or close to, or along heavily traveled routes connecting major cities. Voice quality is generally good, pricing is a good deal better (and less deceptive) than their competitors, they offer excellent customer service and very good high speed data. The added bonus of free international text messaging and data in over 120 countries in an especially attractive added bonus, as is their recent addition of all of Canada and Mexico (matched by AT&T) as part of the "home" (rate) coverage area.

    Unfortunately, however, in arguably the most important category, that of actual signal coverage, TMO lags far behind, and is not a viable alternative for those who live outside of urban areas/corridors. For customers who don't travel too much, or do so within TMO's footprint, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, but generally, TMO can not yet compete with AT&T or especially Verizon in terms of coverage and drop-free calling.

    Overall, TMO, while a viable alternative to the Verizon and AT&T, and certainly the obvious choice if paired up against only Sprint, still has a lot more work to do in terms of building out its network. When it has done so, and assuming all the other pluses which they have worked towards and have going for them remain the same, they will be a highly formidable competitor to Verizon and AT&T.

    T-Mobile Summary:

  • Voice Service: Pros - Good voice quality in areas of strong coverage and low latency with their GSM protocol. Cons - Coverage is limited to urban areas and generally to corridors between the two. Don't expect coverage in tunnels and subways as Verizon and to a lesser extent AT&T offer. T-Mobile also experiences a good deal more drops than Verizon, especially outside of urban core areas (such as in suburban areas where coverage may be more topographically challenging).
  • Data Service: - Very high speed data in areas of strong coverage, with low(er) latency and fewer gaps and stops in data streams. However, TMO's coverage area for 4G is even more limited than their voice footprint, and data sessions often slow to 2G. The constant switching between the two areas (4G <-> 3/2G) also serves as an impediment to a trouble-free, "landline-like" data experience. The lack of an extensive coverage area outside of urban areas and corridors also limits TMO's utility while traveling, and T-Mobile's denial of AT&T roaming in many areas prevents a customer's TMO phone to be useful while traveling outside of TMO's footprint to use travel aids such as Google Maps.
  • Call Features: - The full use of all GSM forwarding codes (**61*, **62*, **67*, **21*, and others; see the discussion above and the AT&T Wireless discussion further above for details) allows for a degree of call control not offered by the CDMA carriers (Sprint, Verizon). Most if not all TMO post-paid customers have access to these features; pre-paid do not!, and many MVNOs/resellers block access to them as well.
  • Customer Service - Excellent, professional, courteous, well-spoken, and can generally gets things done in one call and not require endless, repeated calls to fix and issue which should have been remedied earlier. This alone makes TMO attractive, as the time it takes with some other carrier with significantly worse customer service (Sprint, for example), makes the given carrier effectively more expensive due to all the time which needs to be expended in dealing with them. T-Mobile is refreshingly free of such worries, and their customer service excellence alone is worth given TMO a look at.
  • MVNO's: Mobile Virtual Network Operators of TMO - As TMO doesn't allow too much off network roaming, the dichotomy between post-pay and pre-pay, or carrier/MVNO, seems less of an issue here, as both will likely experience the same effective network, with TMO post-pay customers perhaps having a marginally larger calling area with some roaming (although as of late it appears that MVNOs and pre-pay TMO customers can also roam at times).
  • Final word: Overall, T-Mobile has a lot of good things going for it, and has made a decisive and effective dent in the previously ossified and seemingly stagnant US cellular market. Features, data speeds, billing, pricing, international roaming, and customer service are generally above or well-above those of other carriers. What T-Mobile lacks is coverage!! As noted above, once TMO builds out its network a good deal more they will be a strong national competitor to Verizon and AT&T, but as of now, they are an effective competitor only in urban areas and corridors between them. They also need to work on their drops and disconnections, but a lot of these may be remedied as their network is build out. We put them in third place (way ahead of Sprint, slightly behind AT&T, and well behind Verizon), but with some more progress in terms of coverage and eliminating drops, they could easily become a strong overall contender for number 2 right behind Verizon.


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