Coverage may be the key factor to consider when deciding on a cell phone plan. But with each of the cell phone carriers claiming coverage superiority, you may ask yourself: which one is telling the truth? Which carrier truly has the best coverage?
Verizon boasts the best national coverage, based on independent tests, with 97.7% reliability; AT&T takes the second spot with 96.44% reliability, followed by T-Mobile at 95.4% and Sprint at 93.42% (check out the national chart below). City to city, however, it's a different story; the supposedly less reliable carriers actually win out in many markets.
This guide will explain the different factors that are important to keep in mind when looking into cell phone coverage. This will be followed by a more detailed comparison of the speed and reliability of the major networks.
Your Device Matters
Before investigating the coverage maps and scores, it's important to note that the type of device you use (or plan to use) will determine, in large part, the strength of the coverage you'll receive.
Simply put, newer phones get far better coverage than older models. This is because they have the radio technology to tap into newer, faster "spectrums" rolled out by carriers.
For example, last year, T-Mobile introduced a spectrum known as Band 12 that works four times faster than its predecessor inside buildings. The iPhone 5S does not have a radio that works on Band 12, whereas the iPhone 6S and 7 both do.
Same goes for other carriers and phones: the newest models will be more apt to have the built-in technology to operate on the latest spectrums. Check out our guide to choosing phones to learn more about different devices.
Dead Zones are Real
Dead zones—those black holes of cellular coverage—can exist in the most well-covered of locales. To save yourself from future frustration, we recommend taking a look at the provider coverage maps of your area before signing up. That way, you can get a sense of exactly which carriers provide the best signal to the places you spend time.
If it turns out your area has weak coverage, don't despair: there may be some ways around it. For example, T-Mobile offers free in-home extenders on your WiFi, so coverage inside your house will be excellent, even if there are dead spots via the mobile network. Equipment-free WiFi calling is also available from a number of carriers, allowing you to route calls via a WiFi signal; as long as you have a good WiFi signal, you're good to go.
Small Carriers versus Major Carriers
When it comes to choosing a cell phone carrier, most people immediately think of the big four: Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. In fact, there are dozens of smaller carriers that offer excellent plans and incentives that are worth taking a look at.
These smaller carriers are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators, MVNOs for short. MVNOs purchase network service from the major providers at wholesale prices, then pass the savings on to consumers.
There's no shortage of these types of carriers out there nowadays, and each has its own unique value proposition. WhistleOut’s comprehensive comparison tool allows you to search through them all, some of which you may not recognize—Ting, FreedomPop, RingPlus and Twigby, for example. Since they utilize the major carriers’ networks, you can rest assured that you'll enjoy similar coverage.
Check out the following table to see which networks the MVNOs are on:
|Carrier||Network Carrier Runs On|
|Project Fi (Google)||Sprint, T-Mobile|
|Red Pocket||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T|
|Republic Wireless||Sprint, T-Mobile|
|Rok Mobile||Verizon, Sprint|
|Straight Talk||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T|
|The People's Operator||T-Mobile|
|TracFone||Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T|
|U.S. Cellular||US Cellular|
Coverage Comparison of the Big 4 Carriers
When it comes nationwide coverage, the results are in: Verizon leads the pack with 97.7% reliability, followed by AT&T at 96.44%, T-Mobile at 94.54% and Sprint at 93.42% (for 2016).
Don't get too hung up on these numbers, though: they are a nationwide snapshot, and coverage can vary from city to city. Also, you'll notice that the scores are within a few percentage points of one another; this is proof that the four networks are competitive with each other and all provide, on the whole, solid coverage to most places. Choosing a phone from any of these carriers (or MVNOs that run on their networks) will almost certainly not impede your ability to talk, text, browse or stream, in most places.
Something else to keep in mind: when carriers proclaim their coverage supremacy in, say, 90% of America, they're referring to 90% of the country's populated regions, as opposed to its overall land area. Just ask Jamie Foxx:
Every City is Different
While Verizon takes the crown in nationwide coverage reliability, they aren't the top dog in every city. In fact, the supposedly less reliable Sprint and T-Mobile actually provide the best coverage in certain major markets. AT&T is also tops in many locales. To wit:
- T-Mobile's network is the most reliable in Kansas City, Des Moines, and Buffalo
- AT&T has the most reliable network in Austin, San Antonio, Nashville and Philadelphia
- Sprint boasts the most reliable network in the Salt Lake City suburbs of Ogden and Clearfield, as well as Santa Rosa, CA; Sprint is also tied for #1 in overall performance in Spokane, WA
We looked at the top 25 cities in America to find the best cell phone plans and coverage for each one. From New York to Nashville, Detroit to Denver, San Diego to San Antonio, we've compiled specific coverage info for each. You can check out the full list of 25 cities as a jumping off point.
T-Mobile has long been reputed to have the least reliable major network, but their purchase of U.S. telecom outfits over the last few years has worked to change that. T-Mobile’s LTE coverage increased to 81% in the fourth quarter of 2016, now matching AT&T and nipping at the heels of Verizon. T-Mobile LTE coverage is as strong as, if not stronger than, its rivals in America's urban areas; in 2016, OpenSignal named T-Mobile's network the fastest.
While T-Mobile shines in many cities, it struggles in rural America, falling behind, especially, Verizon's network. However, T-Mobile has plans to greatly expand retail operations to areas of the southeastern and western U.S.; with more T-Mobile customers in these areas, it follows that the company would want to make its 4G network available to them. It remains to be seen whether the company will pursue an aggressive network-building initiative in these regions, but there's reason for optimism.
Sprint's coverage is generally strong in urban areas, less so in rural areas. Sprint's coverage trails that of Verizon and AT&T, though the company claims this deficit only amounts to 1%. However, RootMetrics (a third party network testing company) found that Sprint trailed Verizon by 3.6% and AT&T by 2.4% in 280 metro areas.
Sprint began rolling out its "enhanced" LTE service, called Spark, in 2013. Later rebranded simply as "LTE Plus," the network utilizes 2-channel carrier aggregation, which the company says "creates a wider lane that allows more network traffic to travel at higher rates." That translates to faster data speeds for the (as of August 2016) 237 markets where it's available. Next for Sprint is 3-channel carrier aggregation, with top speeds of 300 Mbps. This ultra fast network is supported by 22 Sprint devices, via an automatic update.
Verizon has long boasted the most robust of the four major networks in the U.S. Independent tests have proven, time and time again, the pervasiveness and reliability of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. So far none of the other carriers—even long-standing behemoth AT&T—have been able to threaten Verizon’s dominance in this area. That’s undoubtedly part of the reason the company is America's leading cell phone carrier with 150 million subscribers. While other carriers, like Sprint and T-Mobile, have recently bested Verizon’s speeds in independent testing, when it comes to overall reliability in the city and out, Verizon is king.
Verizon's network is driven by "LTE Advanced," the brand name of the company's 2 and 3-band aggregated network. It's available in (as of August 2016) 461 cities on Verizon's LTE Advanced-capable devices.
What's next for Verizon? The company is spearheading trials of 5G, the fastest network yet. The company has been busy acquiring smaller telecommunication companies as of late, setting the stage for the rollout of this technology, and increasing overall network density.
While Verizon’s coverage is impressive, AT&T’s is not far off. The breadth of the company’s network translates to consistent reliability throughout the U.S., and very strong network scores. Along with Verizon, AT&T is a good option for those living in rural areas.
AT&T, like Verizon, has been busy strengthening its network. According to chief strategy officer John Donovan, the company is building "thousands" of new cell sites, and continuing to deploy 2 and 3-carrier aggregation over its 4G LTE network. 26 of the devices sold through AT&T are "LTE-A capable"; that is, able to take advantage of the optimized network.
AT&T has also joined Verizon in its field testing of 5G, though this technology will not become widely available, according to sources, until 2020. To wit, they recently made it available to Intel's Austin, TX office, the first known business customer trial of the technology.