AT&T was the only carrier to offer Apple’s iPhone when it was first released, prompting many users to switch in order to snag the most advanced mobile device. Since then, the iPhone has slowly come to each of the three other major carriers, giving customers a choice and a chance to weigh the pros and cons of each provider.
Unfortunately, the differences between different carrier plans and pricing can make this choice overwhelming. We did the math to find out which of the Big Four gives you the biggest bang for your iPhone 5 buck.
AT&T offers two different types of plans for iPhone 5 buyers: Individual and Mobile Share. The individual plan lets you choose how many voice minutes and messages you want, while Mobile Share includes unlimited voice and texts while letting you share data with up to 10 devices.
Say you opted for 450 voice minutes, unlimited texts and 3GB of data, which, unfortunately, cannot be used as a mobile hot spot. That would equal $89.99 per month, or $2,396 over two years when you add the cost of the $199 iPhone 5. The total for a 1GB Mobile Share AT&T plan would be $2,276 (or $206 more than T-Mobile), while the 4GB plan would run you $2,876.
With 263 markets covered, AT&T blankets a little more than half as many cities as Verizon Wireless, but AT&T has most of the major metro areas covered. At the same time, AT&T blows away both Sprint and T-Mobile in terms of LTE deployment. We’ve also enjoyed fast speeds on AT&T’s network, in many cases surpassing Verizon’s LTE in New York City.
Those new to Sprint get to pay just $99 for the iPhone 5 while unlimited voice and data costs $109.99 monthly. Total after two years: $2,740 vs $2,309 for T-Mobile. If you can live with 450 voice minutes, though, you can pay just $79.99 per month for unlimited data for a total of $2,020. That’s cheaper than T-Mobile’s 2.5GB plan with unlimited voice.
However, keep in mind that Sprint charges extra for mobile hotspot usage–$20 for 2GB and $60 for 6GB–on top of your data plan. T-Mobile includes mobile hotspot with its 2.5GB data plan but only 500MB of mobile hotspot on its Unlimited data plan. An additional 2GB costs $10 more per month.
Sprint’s 4G LTE network is growing, offering coverage in 88 markets, but it’s still well behind market leaders AT&T and Verizon. Major cities like New York City aren’t yet covered, but Spint says 170 additional markets will be online in the coming months.
T-Mobile has recently strayed from the pack, ditching the subsidy model and separating the phone from the service plan cost. Customers can purchase an iPhone 5 for $149.99 up front, with additional payments of $20 per month for 24 months.
An individual Simple Choice plan from T-Mobile with a healthy 2.5 GB of data and unlimited talk and text costs $60 per month. Add in the cost of the device, and you’ll end up paying a total of $2,070 over the course of two years. Unlimited 4G costs just $10 more, or $70 per month, which is $2,309 after two years when you include the device.These plans operate month to month, so you’re not locked into a two-year contract. However, if you cancel early, you’ll be required to pay off the remaining balance of the iPhone.
T-Mobile includes mobile hotspot usage in all of their Simple Choice Plan options. Data isn’t capped and no overage fees are ever assessed. If you have signed up for 500MB or an additional 2.5GB of high-speed data, you will experience reduced web speeds for the remainder of your billing cycle. You’ll need to pay an additional $10 per month for an extra 2GB if you want it. Of course, the unlimited data option nullifies this possibility.
T-Mobile currently has the fewest number of 4G LTE markets at just 7 cities, but the carrier promises to cover 100 million people by the end of June and 200 million by the end of the year. T-Mobile also says it offers more bandwidth than AT&T.
One of the benefits of T-Mobile’s network is that it offers fairly fast HSPA 42+ service when you’re not in a 4G LTE area, giving you much faster speeds than Sprint or Verizon’s fall-back 3G networks. We saw some pretty impressive results in our T-Mobile iPhone 5 review both over LTE and HSPA +.
Also, unlike the other carriers, for now only T-Mobile offers HD Voice capability for crystal clear calls. Just keep in mind that the other device needs to be HD Voice capable on T-Mobile’s network.
If you were to purchase the iPhone 5 from Verizon for $199 and opted for a 2GB plan, you’d pay $100 per month over two years (for the line access fee and shared data plan). That comes out to $2,635, or $565 more than you’d pay on T-Mobile for its 2.5GB plan. However, Verizon’s plan is less than Sprint’s Unlimited Everything Plan ($2,740). Verizon is also in between AT&T’s 1GB and 4GB Mobile Share plans.
Bump Verizon’s Share Anything plan to 4GB of data, along with unlimited talk and text, brining the total to $2,875 over the course of two years. That’s one dollar less than the same plan on AT&T and comes with Verizon’s larger 4G LTE coverage map.
4G LTE Coverage
Verizon currently has the largest 4G LTE network with 497 4G LTE markets. The coverage is so broad that you can routinely get a 4G LTE signal in the suburbs of major metro areas–not just the cities themselves. However, in New York City we’ve noticed that Verizon’s network is often slower than AT&T’s in multiple locations. The good news is that Verizon is rolling out AWS to increase its capacity later this year; the bad news is that the iPhone 5 isn’t one of the seven devices announced that will has support.
For those looking to save money over the long haul, T-Mobile’s cheaper monthly plans are quite tempting. And while the carrier has a long way to go with its 4G LTE network rollout, the fact that you can get pretty speedy HSPA 42+ coverage as a backup makes for a pretty good deal.
Meanwhile, Sprint is a good choice for iPhone 5 shoppers who want truly unlimited data. However, we would suggest skipping the unlimited minutes so you can spend less per month–or save room in your budget for the optional mobile hotspot service.
If you want the fastest speeds in the greatest number of cities, AT&T and Verizon Wireless are your best bet, but you’ll pay a premium. AT&T isn’t in as many cities as Verizon, but we’ve experienced slightly better performance as of late from this carrier, especially in the most crowded markets. We also like that AT&T still lets you decide how many minutes and texts you want to buy, while Verizon forces new customers to opt for unlimited minutes and texts.
On the other hand, if you like the idea of shared data plans, Verizon’s 4GB plan nearly the same price as AT&T’s 4GB plan, but you simply get 4G LTE in more places. The decision between these two comes down to coverage in your neck of the woods.