Choosing the right cellular carrier can be fairly annoying given the fact that there is no proper way to compare given networks without a great amount of hassle. Once you go through the trouble to pick two phones, sign two contracts, get everything setup on both phones, and then run through a proper A/B test, you’ve invested a great amount of time. Not to mention you will have to eventually undo one of those choices.
AT&T is the “nation’s fastest network” and Verizon is the “nation’s largest network”. Which one do you choose?
So far we’ve been using AT&T since the release of the iPhone 3G, which was my first decent smartphone. The coverage is good, but does have a decent amount of dropped calls when swapping between towers. Data speeds seem fine as long as you’re in a 3G area. For most of the world this would suffice, but if you traverse Kansas monthly as I do, there are gigantic pockets of EDGE (2G), or even no service.
With the release of the iPad 3 brings the chance to try out Verizon. For tablets, the data plan is kept separate from your cellular bill (and is contract-free) so the risk is much more minimal.
Using the Speedtest app, I’ve spent the last week profiling every place I would travel around the Denver metro area, focusing on the outlying surrounds. At first I was certain I had made a poor choice by purchasing the Verizon model. Ignoring LTE (4G), which is crazy fast but only exists close to metro areas, Verizon was substantially slower everywhere. AT&T typically measured download speeds of 3-6Mbps on 3G. Verizon’s 3G speeds typically cap at 1 Mbps.
At this point, I was ready to order the AT&T model and process the return of the Verizon. But, luckily, I decided to run one more test. Hunter and I were bored and had a morning to kill during spring break. I loaded up some Clone Wars for him to watch and headed out to Limon, which is about 2 hours East. Before you decide it’s cruel to stick him in a car for 4 hours, he is used to long trips and we did eat there. The boy will do anything for pancakes. Since the iPhone is on AT&T, I used that as the comparison device.
Verizon – Once we cleared the LTE of the airport (27Mbps down, for reference), the Verizon network measured within 10% of 1.05Mbps down for the entire trip. It didn’t matter if we were at the bottom of a hill or in one of the towns along the way, Limon included. There’s no guessing at what you should be expecting from the Verizon network.
AT&T – This proved a rather chaotic test. When there was a genuine AT&T 3G tower to be reached, the speed was (relatively) blazingly fast at 7Mbps. Given this is a completely rural area, that is not too bad. It’s roughly equal to my home DSL, given there’s higher latency. However 3G is a precious commodity for AT&T, and a quite rare one at that. 3G is only available near some small towns, which becomes more rare as you trod on through Kansas. In-between these spots brings EDGE service, with download speeds capping at a blistering 0.1Mbps, or possibly no service at all in many places.
Given that a connection isn’t worth anything if you can’t use it, Verizon wins this challenge by a mile. While my test focused on data, it’s also important to point out that each of those EDGE<->3G tower switches is almost guaranteed to be a dropped call with AT&T. Obviously the spots with no signal on AT&T can’t even support a phone call. This test has therefore taught me that I should have been using Verizon all along for phone service.
This also underlines the importance of contracts to the cellular companies. Since AT&T had us wrapped up in contracts, we couldn’t entertain the idea of switching to Verizon once they were available.
So what about the claims of the carriers?
When you can get a 3G signal, AT&T is faster by a wide margin.
There is no “when you can get a 3G signal” with Verizon, you just always do. So it’s the largest, also by a wide margin.
They are both telling the truth, but in my situation the winner is obvious. Verizon has won the business for my iPad 3 and, as soon as I can figure out a cost-effective point in time to switch the contracts, my phone business as well.