Since I spend a lot of time working with mobile devices, one of the questions I consistently get is “which mobile carrier should I choose?”┬áIt’s a good question, and one that you should answer before you decide which phone to buy. The best phone in the world is worthless if you can’t get service on it where you use it most.

Recommendations for choosing a carrier

  1. Coverage
    Network CoverageAbove everything else, you need to choose the carrier that gives you the best coverage where you use your phone the most. Make sure that you get excellent coverage at your house, your office, and all of the places where you spend a lot of time – including coffee shops you frequent, relatives’ and friends’ homes, and favorite vacation spots. I don’t know of anything more frustrating than a phone that doesn’t get service in the places where you spend the most time.The first step is to check the coverage maps for the carrier, but don’t rely on these. While they are mostly accurate, these are an important factor in the carrier’s marketing and may be enhanced a bit. More importantly, take advantage of the phone return period, which is generally 14 days or longer. Be sure to try the phone in as many of the places you frequent as possible and verify service quality. If it doesn’t meet your needs, take it back and try another carrier.

    I can’t emphasize enough how important coverage is. In fact, it’s so important, that you should treat the next three points as secondary factors in making your carrier decision.

  2. Plans
    Carrier PlansSince we’re conditioned to shop on price, it seems counter-intuitive that plans would be a secondary factor. Sure, some carriers offer lower prices than others, but is saving $10 per month worth it if you can’t get service on your phone when you need it? Trust me on this one, you’ll regret that you saved that $10 per month when don’t close a deal because of a missed call or email.Plus, carriers are aware of their competition’s pricing. With only four major carriers in the market, all of them watch each other’s pricing and will quickly move to match pricing changes. In other words, if AT&T is $20 cheaper today, it’s likely Verizon will move quickly to match them.

    Finally, if you’re able to afford the up front cost for a device, I would strongly recommend looking into a “no-contract” plan, particularly on AT&T or T-mobile. It’s one of the best ways to save money and allows you the flexibility to easily switch carriers should better coverage or better pricing become available in your area. Check out this article I wrote earlier this year titled, Should you go “no-contract”?, for more information on the benefits of avoiding a two-year commitment.

  3. Speed
    Network SpeedAgain, you would think speed should be important, but who cares how fast the network is if you can’t access it due to poor coverage. The speed of the network is a don’t care if you can’t access it.Also, carriers are regularly working on upgrades to their networks, so differences in speed between them is usually temporary.

  4. Phones
    Carrier EquipmentIf you’re entering into a two-year contract with a carrier, you’ll want to make sure you get the phone you want. Luckily, the differences in devices between carriers are virtually non-existent. Gone are the days when you had to go to AT&T to get the iPhone or to Verizon to get the best Android (Droid) devices. Manufacturers, particularly Apple and Samsung, make their devices available to all carriers on the date of launch. There may still be a few minor differences in phone selection between carriers, but nothing significant enough to justify choosing a carrier because of a specific device. My advice on phone selection is simple – choose a device that you like and that you feel will make you the most productive.If you’re looking for phone suggestions, check out our latest phone buying guide which is available in the Mobile Hardware section of our blog.

Comparing carriers

Even after reviewing this list, I still get asked which carrier is best. It varies by region, but generally speaking, here is how they stack up:

  • Verizon – It is has a big, fast network with strong coverage in most areas. They’re plans tend to be more expensive, but it’s worth it in most cases.
  • AT&T – Overall, its network isn’t as good as Verizon’s, but there are areas where their coverage will be better. When choosing between AT&T and Verizon, it’s a personal decision based on where you use your phone.
  • T-mobile – It is very aggressive on pricing, especially for data plans, and offers great equipment. Its Achilles heel is its network. They’ve made a lot of improvements lately, but coverage can get spotty if you spend a lot of time outside of populated areas. If T-mobile’s coverage works for you, it’s a great way to save a few bucks. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had very good experience with T-mobile for the past seven years, but I don’t spend much time off the beaten path)
  • Sprint – It’s as aggressive as T-mobile on pricing, but its phone selection is limited and their network isn’t as robust as Verizon and AT&T. As with T-mobile, it’s a good way to save a few dollars if the coverage works for you.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO)

Finally, if you haven’t heard of Mobile Virtual Network Operators, better known as MVNOs, you may want to take a look. They rent network capacity from the major carriers and resell it. Popular MVNOs include Straight Talk Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Republic Wireless, Simple Mobile, GoSmart Mobile, and Net10. A few comments with regards to MVNOs should you decide to investigate one as an option:

  • They rarely have contracts, so service is month-to-month. This allows you to switch between carriers if you run into problems with network coverage, network quality or customer service.
  • Their prices are normally better than the major carriers since they do not operate brick and mortar stores or subsidize phone purchases. The downside is that you have to pay full price for your phone up front, or bring your own device, and get all of your setup and customer service questions answered online or over the phone.
  • Some MVNOs require phones specifically designed for their mobile service, such as Republic Wireless which relies heavily on Wi-Fi. The downside is that you cannot easily switch carriers since your phone will not be compatible with anyone else’s network.
  • Because many of these MVNOs lack storefronts as mentioned above, you can be on your own with regards to technical issues. Therefore, I usually do not recommend an MVNO for the technically faint of heart.
  • If you get really serious about switching to an MVNO, here’s a review of some of the top services from Android Headlines.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend an MVNO if you rely on your phone for business. As a personal phone, or for a teenager/child, an MVNO can be a great way to save some money. For business, it can be a bit risky, especially if you start to run into network quality issues or phone problems.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, and happy shopping!