Apples-to-Apples Comparison of the "Big Four" U.S. Wireless Providers' Calling Plans

 

For those who have become confused and bewildered before when attempting to compare wireless and calling plans from several companies, we would like to help a bit by giving you a real-world, typical-scenario comparison of the “big four” wireless companies in the U.S. In this feature, we will compare, as apples-to-apples as we can, an example of what an individual customer (you) could use to compare when shopping around for a post-paid (monthly) wireless plan.

Of course, there are several dozen other variables that some folks consider, like “family” – or pooled – plans, availability of certain phone handsets from some carriers (like the ultra-popular Motorola RAZR V3), and other less-obvious factors such as laptop/tethered wireless data access for business users, specific coverage differences, specific features on certain phone models, detailed technical service differences, etc. In the effort of simplicity, we will be focusing on this typical customer scenario:

Customer need: an individual, regularly-available calling plan with these details:

We will assume coverage is advertised as available in the customer’s area for home and work

  • 400 to 600 anytime weekday minutes and unlimited/free night airtime minutes (after 9pm) and weekend airtime minutes
  • Nationwide toll-free calling and national roaming included (whether in or out of home network)
  • 200 to 500 text messages per month (not including MMS, video and picture messages, unless applicable)
  • Wireless handset-only internet access with at least 2 megabytes of data traffic per month (we’ll dispense with all the acronym jargon such as WAP, WML, xHTML, EV-DO, EDGE, etc.)
  • Voicemail, Call Waiting, Caller ID (typically free with any wireless plan)
  • That’s it!  For a normal customer, this is a typical calling plan need most likely. The above example could be described by a customer as this: “I need about 500 minutes and free nights and weekends, a few hundred text messages, national toll-free calling and roaming, and the ability to check my email from my phone a few times a day, and maybe I’ll buy some ringtones and games occasionally”.

There is an incredible hodge-podge of additional features and feature configurations available from all the carriers we will compare here, but for the sake of simplicity, we will stick to the above scenario.

This comparison was taken from information available at each carrier’s public website during the week of February 5th through the 10th, 2006. As a reminder – special promotions, offers, family plan and business rates, various multimedia features and feature “buckets”, etc. are not reflected here. Where we could, we chose the lowest-cost feature add-on to ensure the above scenario conditions were met.

As we found out, if going beyond this typical comparison, be prepared to spend some intensive research time with all carriers to determine:
  • the exact features you need (and then, want)
  • the dollar amount of it all (including early-term and activation fees)
  • the handset options that work best for you and handset costs
  • whether you will buy from a company store or reseller/agent
  • the contract length you desire (quickly becoming two years as standard)

We also advise you to visit a company-owned wireless store to try out the handsets you like – nothing can help you more than finding the right handset since that is what you will use to access services from your chosen carrier. Make a handset choice that doesn’t fit your needs or style, and you will probably regret it. Don’t be afraid to ask for a working, live handset to fiddle with. The “dummy” handsets sometimes on display just don’t cut it for most of us.

 

With that said, here we go!

 

Sprint Nextel - Monthly Plan

  • Fair & Flexible plan for $35.99, which includes up to 400 anytime minutes. For minutes past 400: 401 to 900 minutes are $5 for each 50 minute increment. Above 900 additional anytime minutes are $0.10 each. Unlimited nights starting at 9pm and unlimited weekends included. Minutes available only on Sprint CDMA network - no included nationwide digital or analog roaming (but available for an extra charge – see below).
  • 500 text messages (no video or picture messages) - $8.00
  • National roaming access (outside the Sprint CDMA network, like Verizon roaming or analog roaming) - $5.00
  • Wireless internet – Power Vision Access Pack: Unlimited web and data access using handset, one streaming Sprint TV channel (ABC News Now) and one streaming Sirius music channel (Sirius Hits) - $15.00
  • TOTAL Cost per month: $63.99
Coverage Map

 

T-Mobile USA Monthly Plan

  • Get More for $39.99, which includes 600 anytime minutes. Unlimited nights (after 9pm) and unlimited weekends also included. Free national long distance on all minutes and free digital nationwide roaming also included.
  • 400 messages of any type (text, picture, video) - $4.99
  • T-Mobile Web wireless internet (unlimited handset browsing) - $5.99
  • TOTAL Cost per month: $50.97
Coverage Map

 

 Cingular WirelessMonthly Plan

  • Nation 450 with Rollover for $39.99, which includes 450 anytime minutes, 5000 night and weekend minutes starting at 9pm, and nationwide long distance and digital roaming
  • Also includes unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling between Cingular nationwide customers
  • 200 text messages per month (not video or picture messages): $4.99
  • MEdia Net wireless internet (5 megabytes of traffic): $9.99
  • TOTAL Cost per month: $54.97
Coverage Map

 

Verizon WirelessMonthly Plan

  • America's Choice plan for $39.99, which includes 450 anytime minutes, unlimited night and weekend minutes starting at 9pm and free domestic long distance and digital roaming
  • Also includes unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling between Verizon customers (the "IN" network)
  • 500 text, picture, or video messages for $10.00, plus unlimited Verizon IN-Network messaging (text, picture and video messages free to other Verizon nationwide customers)
  • Mobile Web 2.0 wireless internet (unlimited handset browsing): $5.00
  • TOTAL Cost per month: $54.99
Coverage Map

 

So, in order of least expensive to most expensive monthly plan:

  • T-Mobile : $50.97
  • Cingular Wireless: $54.97
  • Verizon Wireless: $54.99
  • Sprint Nextel: $63.99

 
There you have it – while the two largest carriers are neck-and-neck with costs, the overall cheapest plan is from T-Mobile USA (4th largest carrier), while the most expensive plan is from Sprint Nextel (3rd largest carrier). T-Mobile USA’s plans seemed the most straightforward and easiest to understand, while Sprint Nextel’s options were the most confusing to us, especially in the wireless internet area (Power Vision). Cingular and Verizon give you what T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel don’t (without extra charges), which is mobile-to-mobile calling within their networks for free; this feature alone could be worth it to many customers when decision time comes.

The level of complexity in choosing a wireless provider kind of startled us, and we can understand the typical consumer being dazed and confused with the barrage of charges, features and handsets to choose from. As always, do your homework and you should feel comfortable about making the right choice. Typically, each carrier gives you 14 to 30 days to evaluate your decision (to make sure the choice you made works for you), so use that period to make sure coverage is what it needs to be and that your handset works well with your style and usage, among other things. After all, it will become a main lifeline for you!

 

Thanks for reading – we hope you’ve enjoyed this feature post.

The Wireless Report Team – www.thewirelessreport.com

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