If you're in the U.S. it's probably not so easy deciding which carrier is best for your iPhone 5 needs, AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint. Price is always a huge factor to consider when choosing a carrier, but coverage should be just as, if not more, important when making a decision. Since the iPhone 5 supports LTE cellular technology, you're going to want to take a close look at which carriers offer the best LTE coverage in your area. Then there's the matter of simultaneous voice and data -- AT&T can do it over HSPA data, but Sprint and Verizon need Wi-Fi. And don't forget international roaming.
First, let's take a look at prices.
AT&T vs Verizon vs Sprint shared plans
Verizon and AT&T are the easiest carriers to compare because the offer very similar plans. Their "share everything" plans include unlimited minutes and the price is determined how much data you want. Sprint has has a different approach to their shared plans and includes unlimited data so that price is determined by minutes. Let's first take a look at Verizon and AT&T.
Verizon shared data versus AT&T shared data
Here's a pricing comparison chart for Verizon and AT&T. Both carriers charge a base fee, labeled as the "monthly price", then charge an additional price for each smartphone included in the plan. For Verizon, the smartphone fee is a straightforward $40 per phone, but AT&T has a tiered pricing that decreases as the amount of data goes up. Both AT&T and Verizon charge $10 for each tablet added to the plan.
Now, although the above chart gives an accurate depiction of the prices on each carrier, the first thing you have to do is add up the appropriate numbers to figure out what your family's plan would cost. But let's just do that for you! Here's a chart that compares the prices on Verizon and AT&T for one, two, three, and four smartphones.
Keep in mind that if you want to add a tablet to any of the above plans, you must add an additional $10.
Sprint shared plans
As previously mentioned, Sprint takes a different approach to their pricing scheme and includes unlimited data for all plans. The price of your plan is determined by the number of minutes you use. It's very important to note that all Sprint plans include unlimited mobile to any mobile minutes. Meaning that if you're calling another cell phone, whether that cell phone is on AT&T, Verizon, T-mobile, or any other mobile carrier, your minutes will not be accounted against your allotted amount. Only calls to landline phones count against your minute usage.
To summarize, Sprint's cheapest shared plan is $150 for two phones and includes 1500 minutes and unlimited minutes. For the same price, Verizon and AT&T offer unlimited minutes and 4 GB of data. But when you jump up to four phones, Sprint's 1500 minute plan is $210, but Verizon only includes 1 GB of data for that price, and AT&T doesn't offer anything at that price for four phones (1 GB will run you $220).
So the bottom line is that when deciding if Sprint is a good option for your family, you need to decide which is more important: unlimited minutes or unlimited data. If you family eats up minutes, then you may want to cross Sprint off your list, but if your family uses a lot of data, then Sprint may be the way to go -- providing they offer good coverage in your area (what good is unlimited data if you can't use it?)
AT&T vs Sprint individual plans
You may have noticed that Sprint's chart did not include options for just one phone. That's because for individuals, you are restricted to 450, 900, or unlimited minutes. AT&T offers similar individual plans as well; however, Verizon has combined all options for any number of phones in their "Share Everything" plans shown above.
Sprint's plans are very straightforward. They all include unlimited data and text giving you only three options. On the other hand, AT&T's plans do not include unlimited data or text. Both data and text must be added on as additional services. Unlimited texting is $20 and for data, 300 MB is $20, 3 GB is $30, and 5 GB (with personal hotspot) is $50. The following chart breaks it down for you.
It's important to note that all of Verizon's plans include personal hotspot at no additional cost, but AT&T's do not.
In addition to price, you must also consider where each carrier offers coverage and if you're within that area. When it comes to coverage, the first thing you want to consider is LTE availability.
Clearly, the above maps are not a good enough indication of LTE coverage in your area. So make sure you look at each of carriers' maps very closely as they all offer an interactive tool that lets you zoom into your specific area and learn exactly which areas of your city get coverage.
If LTE is not available to you on either network, the next thing to look at is 3G (or "4G" -- ugh!) coverage. In general, AT&T's HSPA data is much, much faster, but also less reliable than Verizon and Sprint's CDMA networks -- and Verizon is typically faster than Sprint. Because of 3G/4G data speeds, I am inclined to recommend AT&T over Verizon and Sprint providing that they offer solid coverage in your area.
It really does come down to who offers the best coverage. If price is deal breaker for you, you may have to compromise on coverage and stability and choose Sprint, but if you're willing to pay extra for a better network, take a close hard look at the coverage that AT&T and Verizon offer. Don't only look at maps, either. Talk to your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers who use AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint to learn how satisfied they are with their carrier's network.
Simultaneous voice and data
AT&T is the only one who offers simultaneous voice and data. This feature will not be available on Verizon and Sprint. So if simultaneous voice and data is something you value, AT&T is your only option.
Since AT&T is GSM carrier and Sprint and Verizon are CDMA carries, Apple chose to make two different models of the iPhone 5: GSM+LTE for AT&T and CDMA+LTE for Verizon and Sprint. For people who don't travel internationally, this fact is irrelevant, but if you're a frequent traveler, it may play a very important role on which carrier you choose. To make a long story short, if you regularly travel within North America (US and Canada) and want LTE when you travel, AT&T is your only option. If you travel to the rest of the world, then you want Verizon or Sprint. If you travel between Canada and the rest of the world, well, you're out of luck -- you can't have both, unfortunately. If this is something that you need to consider, hit the link above for more details.
Making the choice
So which carrier are you going to choose? Personally, I'm torn between Verizon and AT&T. I'm already an AT&T subscriber who's grandfathered into an unlimited data plan, but Verizon's share everything plan is very tempting to get for my husband and me. I am not a huge data user since I am almost always around WiFi, so I'm not too concerned about losing my unlimited data plan. Where I live, AT&T's LTE is not yet available, whereas Verizon's LTE network is fairly stable. I currently have an iPad on Verizon's network, so I could save money getting a shared plan and adding my iPad for just $10 a month (I'm currently paying $30). However, this would come at the expense of early termination fees with AT&T, and that's a hard pill to swallow. UPDATE: I've decided to go with Verizon.
Enough about my predicament, what carrier do you plan on going with? Will you be ditching one carrier for another or sticking with the one you already have? Sound off in the comments below!