The U.S. wireless industry went through quite a few years of relative complacency, where competition was rare and prices seemed destined only to go higher. In the last several years, however, things have changed dramatically. Competition has come back to wireless, and the four national providers have worked hard to build faster networks, more competitive plans, larger data buckets, and more value-added features.
Shopping around and looking for a new carrier never been more fun, nor has it ever been more confusing. Before comparing carriers and choosing a new plan, there are a few things to know that will help simplify this process.
- Overages Are Over
If there’s one word that has been synonymous with the term “wireless carrier” since the very beginning, it’s “overages.” The term originally applied to going over a monthly allotment of cellular phone call minutes, then applied largely to sending or receiving too many text messages. For the past half-decade, the term has mostly been associated with using too much mobile data in a given month.
Data overages historically brought in billions of dollars in additional revenue for wireless carriers, who charged up to $15 per gigabyte to users who went over their plan’s monthly data allotment. That will not happen any longer.
The industry, led by T-Mobile, has largely abandoned the concept of data overages. T-Mobile in 2013 eliminated overages from its own plans, opting instead to throttle users’ data speeds to 2G levels instead. Several years later, Sprint also eliminated overages from its plans. Verizon eliminated the practice in June of 2016 and AT&T followed in August of 2016. Now, the concept of accidentally paying more money for exceeding a data bucket is history. That makes it far easier to compare data amounts and features between the “big four” national wireless carriers.
- Networks Still Matter
The elimination of overages as a concept in the American wireless industry is a radical change, but there’s one thing that remains constant even in this era of always-on LTE connectivity: network quality matters. This is perhaps best marketed by Verizon, where the “Better Matters” campaign highlights the company’s expansive LTE reach and fast speeds. Verizon isn’t the only company that focuses heavily on its network. AT&T, Verizon’s chief competitor, has a network of roughly similar size. T-Mobile has spent the last three years expanding its network and now reaches 97 percent of Verizon’s customers. Sprint has focused chiefly on LTE speeds.
The consensus is this: Pick a mobile phone plan that actually works where you live, work, and play. It’s not a given that any network will perform excellently in any area. Luckily, T-Mobile offers a “lifetime network guarantee” to its users and Sprint offers a 30-day guarantee on its own plans and nationwide network. Verizon and AT&T offer a 14-day commitment cancellation policy for phone and network problems. If the network isn’t up to par, even the best plan or price represents wasted money.
- Bundling Has Gone Wireless
In the cable industry, which specializes in wired broadband, bundling has been a big part of consumer marketing for over a decade. Ever since the arrival of cable broadband and VoIP telephone services, the “triple play” has been the signature offering of wireline companies. Wireless companies, however, often didn’t have anything to bundle. That has been changing in recent years, and at least two of the four major wireless players now offer a quad-play bundle that goes above and beyond the traditional triple play.
The company with the greatest ability to offer a bundle is AT&T, which acquired DirecTV in 2015 and began offering bundled TV and wireless service in 2016. AT&T also offers its customers the ability to bundle U-Verse television, broadband and phone service into a new or existing AT&T wireless plan. As an added benefit, DirecTV and U-Verse bundle customers can opt for an unlimited data plan on America’s second largest network.
Verizon offers the opportunity to bundle its wireless and FiOS wireline options together as well, though it’s not a nationwide offer due to the limited footprint of the FiOS service. Existing FiOS customers who opt for the bundle can double their data buckets on the company’s “XL” and “XXL” shared data plans. While not unlimited, this is still a pretty substantial offer on what is often America’s largest and most expensive wireless network.
- Pick a Travel-Friendly Plan (If Necessary)
Traveling with a mobile phone is something that used to incite panic into most American wireless customers. Horror stories abound from people who accidentally left their data connection on while overseas, only to come home and be faced with a thousand-dollar bill for international data roaming. While international roaming still isn’t cheap, it’s far more affordable than it used to be. In fact, limited international data speeds are free at two of America’s four national carriers.
T-Mobile offers international data at speeds of up to 128Kbps, or roughly 2G, for free to all customers on its Simple Choice or T-Mobile ONE plans. Those customers on T-Mobile ONE Plus get twice this speed, 256Kbps. T-Mobile also offers free, unlimited international roaming at LTE speeds in Mexico and Canada. On Sprint, the company’s “Open World” program allows free international roaming at speeds of up to 64Kbps. Both companies offer high-speed data passes to customers who need them. AT&T and Verizon both offer low-cost Mexico and Canada roaming, though these companies charge a significant premium for using data in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Four Key Considerations When Shopping Competitive Mobile Plans
The mobile industry in the United States is more competitive than it’s been in almost a decade, thanks to maturing networks and reinvigorated leadership at both T-Mobile and Sprint. For wireless customers, this means all kinds of good things. Plans are now more affordable, with greater data allotments, no overages, bundling opportunities, and the ability to roam internationally without facing a huge bill.
As you peruse the options form each carrier, however, be mindful of network quality, inherent value and whether or not these additional features will actually be used. This will make it easier to pick the plan with the right cost, features, and capabilities, for yourself and any other lines on your account.