What’s best… AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or Nextel?,

A cell phone pileHere’s another question of “it depends”, but I think the distinction is getting clearer where there will be a clear call in the near future if things don’t change.  AT&T’s network is being hammered by all the smart phones (read iPhones) on their network.  While Sprint has both Sprint and Nextel, they are still two separate networks.  And Verizon keeps consistently chugging forward.  Like any service, the first factor is if there is even cell tower reachable from where you are.

Sprint is the easy one to tag first.  They bought Nextel and then turned around and wrote off the entire value of Nextel from their business.  If it weren’t for the heavy government, first-responder and utilities using the push-to-talk feature, I think Nextel would have folded in the past couple years.  Sprint is fairly consistent player but lacks any technical achievements to propel it past the others.  There is consistent rumor that the European company that owns T-Mobile wants to buy Sprint/Nextel to make the largest conglomerate in the US.  Then they’d have the challenge of trying to merge all three networks into one.  The Washington DC Metro area is supposed to have complete Sprint coverage, but there are definite holes.  Since my commute doesn’t change and neither do the holes, can at least predict them and get off the phone before enter them.  Sprint is putting in their next generation network now so they are coming forward with new next generation phones.  The challenge will be to maintain a profitable motion while not adopting a standard used globally.

AT&T has achieved great success with their partnership with the Apple iPhone … well, when measured with total number of subscribers.  Recently in the news was AT&T’s decision to not sell anymore iPhones in the New York City area in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.  There is statistic out in the press where small minority (like <10%) of the smart phones are eating up the majority (like 80%) of AT&T’s bandwidth.  It makes sense with the “always on” character of smart phone.  People stream music, location updates, tweets, text messages, and now video to their phones while wandering around or passing the time – obviously streaming music and video will chew up bandwidth more than the rest.  I’ve upgraded to an AT&T 3G Blackberry Bold in the past few weeks.  I was expecting much faster device that would just snap through my daily chores.  In reality, this hasn’t materialized and my speeds appear to have dropped.  Strange because my EDGE (2G) service on the Blackberry Curve was solid.  When I did an AT&T 3G aircard test last year, my finding was simply that AT&T has the theoretically fastest aircard, but in practice Sprint and Verizon were more consistent.  It was great when AT&T was in full 3G coverage, but it really crapped out when it wasn’t.  I guess it really hasn’t changed in the past year. 

We use Sprint aircards which work most reliably on operations followed closely by Verizon.  But it falls back to the “use what works” after disaster, so all three types end up distributed. Verizon has been working on upgrading their nationwide network fairly consistently.  While haven’t checked any of the books, it almost seems that Verizon’s funding is more steady to keep their growth consistent.  AT&T could be upgrading faster than Verizon but as their bandwidth is eaten up, it is hard to see.  Verizon hasn’t been leading with any bandwidth consuming smart phones to attract new susbcribers.  What will be most telling is when Apple and Verizon ink the deal to put iPhones on Verizon’s network and see how it withstands the beating.  I don’t think the Blackberry Storm has really put dent in their bandwidth due to the slow sales.  Verizon does have the Motorola Droid phone which could be an early indicator, but the entire Android / is still fairly new and penetration is not as deep as the iPhone.

What do use? Funny you should ask.  My personal phone is Sprint that can roam on Verizon.  My work phone is an AT&T.  My laptop’s aircard is Verizon.  I’ll have something that works when need to, and when suspect that all that will fail, I’ll just grab an Iridium satellite phone because it won’t be pretty.  If was investing money in this whole thing, I would back GSM and LTE technologies.  Outside the US, GSM is the standard and GSM phones can roam on each other’s networks.  They’re clearly going to be the global leader in the future.  China Mobile has committed to GSM and LTE.  China Mobile has more subscribers then the total population of the US.  Vodaphone ( European conglomerate) has the largest revenue, and yes, they backed GSM and LTE too.  Lastly, the major manufacturers will be building devices for their largest clients – Vodaphone and China Mobile.  AT&T is ahead in this area because they’re phones starting dual and tri-banding to work on US networks and GSM networks.  Their new network is also GSM.  Verizon is heading in this direction too.  Sprint, well, they’re taking their own path.  Really, this sidebar on GSM and LTE doesn’t matter for your next phone purchase.  You’ll probably change phones couple more times before all this plays out.