One of our most frequently asked questions (right up there with “How old is that bus?” and “Oh, wow, is that a cat on a leash!?!”) is “Who has the best cell network?”
As technomads who have been living and running our business on the road for 5+ years now, indeed, we have more first hand knowledge about staying connected than most, and have written some internet connectivity posts offering up advice.
We can tell you all about the pluses and minuses of every network in the USA, usually because we’ve tried them all out.
But as for the best one overall? In short, there is no simple answer.
If you live in one location and only travel occasionally, it’s relatively easy to pick a network. Obviously, you go with the one that you’ve observed to have the best service within your area, knowing that coverage and speeds may actually vary block-by-block in your neighborhood due to tower placement and network load.
While there might be an obvious “best” network for a given neighborhood, us frequent travelers have a harder choice to make. There simply is no single best network everywhere nationwide. All of the big four have their strengths and weaknesses in various locations across the country.
And they are all at different stages of evolution in their technology roll out. Verizon and AT&T are the first to bring the latest LTE technology to market, but while Sprint and T-Mobile lag behind, they are headed that way as well.
With the new iPad coming out later this week on Verizon and AT&T’s LTE networks – the “best network” question is once again buzzing all over. If you are going to stand in line on Friday to get a new iPad you’ll be faced with a choice: AT&T or Verizon. Or neither – and go with a WiFi version and use your existing internet pipelines.
Which should you choose?
Does LTE even matter where you plan to travel?
What on earth is LTE, anyway?
Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the latest and greatest cellular wireless technology standard that promises a future filled with blazing fast mobile internet speeds – so fast that even watching streamed HD video on the go is possible.
But with great speed comes great responsibility.
Using LTE it is theoretically feasible to actually use up an entire month’s 5GB data allotment in a matter of minutes, so you need to watch your usage carefully! HD video may be possible, but for now at least, it is not advised.
Both Verizon and AT&T have been aggressively rolling out LTE equipment and service, and Sprint has announced they will be abandoning their current WiMax 4G network to embrace an LTE future too. Even T-Mobile will be migrating towards LTE in the coming years, at last unifying all the major carriers under a common technological standard.
Above is Verizon’s (Red) vs AT&T’s (Blue) current LTE network, compared head to head using the newest release of our app ‘Coverage?‘.
If LTE is your goal, as you can see, Verizon is far ahead in rolling out coverage into many more markets than AT&T currently serves.
But LTE isn’t everything…
While LTE has always been considered a 4G technology, lately the term “4G” has largely devolved into a marketing term to mean “anything faster than what we used to call 3G”.
What Verizon labels as “4G” is LTE, and the speed difference over Verizon’s older slow CDMA 3G network is night and day.
AT&T and T-Mobile though both evolved their 3G networks to support an intermediary technology called HSPA+, which though it is based upon third generation wireless technology, it is actually capable of speeds that in the real world are vastly superior to the older “3G” networks.
Some carriers called their HSPA+ networks 3G+, but AT&T and T-Mobile decided that the user visible difference was enough to start marketing their HSPA+ networks as “4G”. With this bit of redefinitional wizardry accomplished, suddenly AT&T’s 4G network jumped from being way behind Verizon’s to being somewhat ahead.
AT&T even finally convinced Apple to display HSPA+ coverage as “4G” on the indicator status of the HSPA+ capable iPhone 4S (if you’ve noticed this recently when you upgrade to iOS 5.1, that’s why – you’ve actually been getting this coverage all along.)
The new iPad though is capable of both HSPA+ and LTE, but AT&T makes it a bit hard to tell what coverage they have where.
It’s only through deep digging that you can determine what parts of AT&T’s network are using the faster LTE standard. In our ‘Coverage?‘ app, we’ve done the work of making that difference easily visible.
When you compare Verizon’s 4G network (which is all LTE) against AT&T’s 4G network (both HSPA+ and LTE) – it’s a much tougher comparison, with AT&T pulling ahead in many areas.
For 4G compatible devices, going with AT&T will actually give you faster speeds in many different places, particularly since Verizon’s 3G network is relatively slow and there is no intermediary step before LTE.
So this brings the question back to being dependent on where you plan to go and what speeds you desire as you travel. There is no easy answer.
Which network did we pick? We couldn’t!
We actually carry a Verizon 3G USB data card (contract-free via Millenicom - which unfortunately, they stopped offering this week due to running out of modems ) as our primary dedicated data stream.
We use AT&T for both of our iPhones, including one set up to create a mobile WiFi hot spot when needed.
We also have an iPad 2 on AT&T with a grandfathered unlimited data plan (perfect for streaming video content), and we just ordered a new LTE iPad on Verizon.
We like the redundancy that the combined coverage map of both carriers gives us. We used to have Sprint on board as well (who’s wider availability of unlimited data plans makes them tempting), and before that T-Mobile too.
For a technomad, there may be no such thing as too much connectivity.
The ‘Coverage?’ App
All of the above images are taken from our iPhone/iPad app, ‘Coverage?‘
‘Coverage’ is a simple app we created to help us travelers determine where we’re most likely to catch some mobile bandwidth while on the go. Many of us travel with multiple networks on board, so this app allows us to create a personalized coverage map by overlaying our carriers and preferred data speeds – incredibly useful for planning routing, overnight stops, and campgrounds to put down the leveling gear.
However even if you aren’t always on the move, a lot of people have discovered that ‘Coverage?’ is the perfect tool for comparing coverage maps to decide which network to go with. As far as we know, ‘Coverage?’ is the only tool that actually lets you directly overlay and compare data speed separated coverage maps in this way. The maps are based upon what the carriers report (which are optimistic, at best), so you do have to take them with a grain of salt. But if you are looking for a way to make a high-level comparison across the entire nation, we know of no better tool.
You can get ‘Coverage?’ in the App Store here. (And sadly, no, there is no Android version… yet.)
Are you planning on getting a new LTE iPad? Which network have you decided to go with? Why?