Networks and Carriers
Out of over 100 U.S. carriers, there are only five that own and operate their own national wireless networks. They include:
- Verizon Wireless
- U.S. Cellular
Typically, the group comprised of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint is known as the “Big Four.” Every carrier that isn’t one of the five majors is known as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). MVNOs are small carriers that run on one or several of the major networks.
Each U.S. network offers different coverage. It’s important to know all the details before choosing a plan through one of these major carriers.
Verizon is known for their superior coverage. Their 70% nationwide 4G LTE coverage means they offer the best cell phone reception nationwide. Of course, if you look at the coverage map, there are some small gaps, but they do provide 27 states with over 90% coverage. Further, their 3G network is strong, with 62% coverage. Because of their widespread coverage, they are an excellent choice for frequent domestic travelers or people who live in rural areas.
One downside to going with Verizon is that Verizon phone plans tend to be some of the most expensive on the market. Although they have some nice features like Mexico and Canada roaming privileges and Apple Music, some of their competitors outshine them in the perks department.
T-Mobile’s 4G network is similarly robust, with 59% coverage across the U.S. However, their 3G network is lacking, with just under 22% 3G coverage. 3G is the network your phone falls back on when 4G signal isn’t available.
However, there are many advantages to choosing a T-Mobile cell phone plan. This GSM carrier includes taxes and fees in their plan pricing, so what you see is what you get. They are also known for having excellent customer service. If you have a postpaid plan through them, you receive your own team of dedicated experts—they’re just a text message away through the T-Mobile app. Additionally, they have great features like Netflix, unlimited international data, and unlimited international texting.
AT&T’s 4G LTE network covers 58% of the country, just 1% behind T-Mobile. However, a large portion of T-Mobile’s 4G network is comprised of the 600 Mhz spectrum, which not all phones can access. Without this spectrum, AT&T actually beats out fellow GSM carrier T-Mobile for the second-place spot. Further, AT&T’s 3G network is the best in the country with 70% nationwide coverage.
AT&T plans tend to be fairly pricey, though they come with great features like unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada and access to 35 channels of live TV and over 15,000 on-demand movies and shows. Additionally, the AT&T Unlimited&More Premium plan includes your choice of a premium entertainment subscription (Showtime, HBO, Starz, Cinemax, Pandora, Amazon Music, or VRV). As such, AT&T is a great carrier for anyone who likes to stream TV and movies on their smartphones.
Sprint’s nationwide coverage falls far behind Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T—their 4G LTE network only covers 27% of the country and their 3G network is similarly weak. That said, they do have good coverage in sections of the Midwest and East Coast. If you live on the West Coast, you may want to consider a different carrier.
Sprint’s feature-packed and budget-friendly unlimited plans offer some of the best value in the industry. These are just some of the perks included with them:
- Generous hotspot allowances
- Roaming in Mexico and Canada
- Unlimited international texting and data
- Amazon Prime
Another feature unique to Sprint is that they offer leasing options for device payment plans. Leasing a smartphone instead of purchasing one helps to keep the cost down, especially if you’re interested in flagship devices from brands like Apple and Samsung.
U.S. Cellular’s 4G network covers only 10.27% of the country—the least amount of nationwide coverage out of the five major networks. However, they do have roaming agreements with the Big Four that ensure service for their customers when they are off network. Although U.S. Cellular’s primary network coverage is meager, some areas do receive strong coverage, such as parts of:
- New Hampshire
U.S. Cellular’s roaming agreements mean customers get far better coverage than the carrier’s coverage map would suggest. That said, if you prefer non-roaming coverage, you’ll want to consider looking at a different cell phone provider, like Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. Further, U.S. Cellular probably isn’t the best choice if great features are a priority for you—their plans are pretty bare bones.
Other Cell Phone Carriers
Unlike the major networks, MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) do not own their own networks; they operate on one or several of the major networks. These small carriers buy network space from the major carriers at a discounted price—and as a result, are able to offer inexpensive phone plans. Plans through MVNOs typically don’t require a credit check and the majority of the plans are prepaid.
MVNOs vary greatly in size, from massive outfits like Cricket Wireless, Virgin Mobile, and Metro by T-Mobile to smaller carriers like Tello and Mint Mobile. There are so many MVNOs out there that it can be difficult to figure out which one is best for you. Ultimately, the right MVNO for you will be the one that meets your specific needs and preferences.
List of MVNOs & Their Networks
|AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile
|Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
|Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular
|Metro by T-Mobile (formerly MetroPCS)
|AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
|Page Plus Cellular
|Sprint, Verizon, AT&T
|Red Pocket Mobile
|AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
|AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile
|AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon
|Walmart Family Mobile
|Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
Major Networks vs MVNOs
There are a lot of things to take into consideration when choosing the best phone carrier and plan for you. For instance:
- Where do you live?
- Which network do you prefer?
- Do you travel frequently? Do you travel domestically, internationally, or both?
- What are your priorities? (Price, features, service, etc.)
- Do you prefer postpaid or prepaid plans?
- Do you need a new cell phone?
- Do you want the flexibility of building your own plan?
- Do you frequently stream music or videos on data?
- Do you want to forgo a credit check?
- How often do you connect to WiFi?
- Are you okay with possible data deprioritization?
Answering these questions will help you to decide between a major carrier and an MVNO, as well as narrow down your cell phone provider search within the category you choose.
Pros & Cons of a Major Network
|Most likely faster data speeds than MVNOs
|More expensive plans
|Larger smartphone selection
|Less plan variety
|Typically carries the newest smartphones
|More feature-packed plans
Pros & Cons of MVNOs
|No credit check
|May have limited phone selections
|Cheaper phone plans
|Many MVNOs don't have physical stores
|Variety of plan options
|Fewer subscription or streaming features
|Uses the same networks as the major carriers
|Data speeds may be slowed in preference for main network customers