4G Data Plans Compared: Which Carrier Offers the Best Value?

Now that Verizon’s new tiered data plans have been leaked, which will reportedly start July 7th, it’s time to take a hard look at how much you’ll pay for 4G at each of the major carriers. Who offers the most bytes for your buck?

Of course, not all 4G networks are created equal. In our testing, Verizon’s 4G LTE network (76 markets and counting) has delivered nearly double the download and upload speeds of T-Mobile and Sprint. However,  T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network is improving all the time, with the carrier recently rolling out 42Mbps HSPA+ technology. We’ve seen devices like the T-Mobile Rocket 3.0 average over 7 Mbps downloads and decent 1 Mbps uploads.

Sprint’s Mobile WiMax network is a close third; it covers only 71 markets to T-Mobile’s 170 but we’ve seen download rates higher than 8 Mbps  on devices like the EVO 3D. AT&T’s 4G network is still getting up to speed, as we’ve  seen download rates in the 3 Mbps range–on the high end. At the moment, AT&T only provides the necessary backhaul for true 4G performance in a measly 10 markets.

With all of that in mind, we wanted to compare what you’ll pay for 4G data on phones (when you include voice and text), as well as calculate the costs if you opt for tethering/mobile hotspot connectivity.

4G Data Plans Compared (including 450-500 voice minutes and unlimited text)


200MB

$74

N/A

$59

N/A

2GB

$84

N/A

$69

$89

4GB

$104

N/A N/A N/A

5GB

N/A N/A

$79

$109

10GB

N/A N/A

$109

$139

Unlimited

N/A

$79

N/A N/A

Phone as Hotspot Fee

$20 (counts against data plan)

$30 per month

$15 (counts against data plan)

$20 for 2GB

Total (2GB of data plus hotspot)

$104

$109*

$84

$109

Overage Charge

$10 per GB

None

None but throttling

$10 per GB

* Sprint offers unlimited data

Who Offers the Best 4G Value for Phones?

200 to 2GB: If you plan on using your 4G phone to surf the web, stream music, and watch online videos fairly frequently, you can pretty much throw out the lame 200MB option offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. You’ll blow through that amount of data quickly. Why even buy a 4G phone if you’re going to use 200MB per month?

In the 2GB range, T-Mobile clearly offers the best value at $69, undercutting AT&T and Verizon by $15 and $20, respectively. Sprint doesn’t offer a 2GB plan but for just $10 more you can get unlimited data. Between AT&T and Verizon at 2GB, AT&T would seem to be the better deal because it’s $5 cheaper, but Verizon’s speeds are so much faster that the two networks are not even in the same league.

4GB or More: As you move up into the 4-5GB range, Sprint and T-Mobile are neck and neck. Both carriers charge $79 per month. But while T-Mobile throttles your speeds once you go past 5GB, Sprint’s 4G network is truly unlimited. AT&T doesn’t offer a plan with 5GB of data, but if you compare the carrier’s 4GB plan (which includes tethering) with Verizon Wireless’ 5GB plan, Verizon costs only $5 more and you get a lot more speed.

Hotspot/Tethering:

On paper, T-Mobile offers by far the best value for 4G phone shoppers who want to turn their handsets into mobile hotspots. When you add the carrier’s $15 fee on top of a 2GB data plan with 500 voice minutes, it comes out to just $84. However, your hotspot usage counts against that 2GB allotment, so we’d suggest that consumers step up to the carrier’s 5GB plan for just $10 more. That $94 is still less than AT&T’s 4GB tethering plan ($104), Verizon’s 2GB plus 2GB of tethered data plan ($109), and Sprint’s unlimited hotspot plan (also $109).

However, Sprint and Verizon Wireless each offer unique advantages. Sprint’s $30 hotspot fee seems pricey, but you don’t have to worry about caps or overage charges. And while Verizon’s total cost per month also seems fairly steep when you add on tethering/hotspot, you’ll enjoy faster speeds than all the other networks.

Bottom Line

At the moment, AT&T simply isn’t in the 4G running because of its lackluster 4G speeds, so that leaves Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Sprint is the best bet for those who want truly unlimited data, though the 4G coverage can be weak as you go further indoors.

Verizon’s 4G LTE network makes the most sense for those who crave the fastest performance and are willing to pay a premium. It’s not that Verizon’s new data plans are pricey; you just pay more per month overall when you factor in both voice and text messaging. Also keep in mind that Verizon’s 4G handsets tend to be more expensive than the competition, ranging in price from $249 to $299 (compared to $199 for everyone else). If you want best speeds, you’re going to pay for it.

That brings us to T-Mobile. If the carrier’s coverage is good in your area and where you travel, it’s 4G network is a heck of a deal. It’s the cheapest option whether you decide to opt for 2GB of data per month, 5GB, or decide to add on tethering.

AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. UofASouthpaw Says:

    DECEIVING!

    I’m not 100% sure since this article doesn’t specify, but I believe the Verizon pricing shown above would be AFTER the new plan rates take effect. If you go by their CURRENT rates, which you can still get a 2-year contract on, you can get 450min., unlimited txt, and unlimited data for $90mo. Not bad for the most markets and fastest speed.

    Then again, if I’m misunderstanding this article and/or Verizon’s current rate plans, please let me know!

  2. Mark Spoonauer Says:

    Yes, this article assumes the new rate plans, which will likely take effect July 7. Right now Verizon’s plans are a great deal, so definitely get it while you can…

  3. Jenyoung Says:

    What will happen if the att&t tmobile deal goes through?

  4. Muninn Says:

    This is nice, but I would like an article that shows a comparison of data plans WITHOUT voice and text. Since the 2010’s it has become very common for people to forgo traditional phone numbers in favor of app-based VOIP solutions like Google Hangouts and Skype. I’d like to find an inexpensive data-only plan.

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