AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Which iPhone carrier to choose based on coverage

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The iPhone 5s and 5c launch in less than 24 hours from now, which means you are likely thinking long and hard about buying your next iPhone. Besides which iPhone model you want to buy, the next most important question you need to ask yourself is which carrier should I choose. Some of you are not going to switch as you have too many friends and family on the same network. Many of you, though, want the coverage that suits your needs and are willing to switch if the fit is right. Read on as we compare each major carrier in the US and discuss their coverage options.

Verizon Wireless

Hands-down, Verizon Wireless has the most extensive coverage in the US. It covers the major metropolitan areas and the smaller rural towns. It’s weakness is in the west where the numerous mountain ranges pose a challenge to constructing towers. Verizon also has the most extensive LTE network, now offering the high-speed service on 99% of its network. It was the fastest network, but its speed has slowed as more people have jumped on board with LTE. It’s all relative though, as the older EVDO network topped out at 2MB/s, while the LTE networks sings along at around 12-15MB/s. Verizon’s voice calls are carried on it CDMA network, which does not support simultaneous voice and data.

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Who should buy an iPhone on Verizon Wireless

If you travel a lot, then going with Verizon Wireless is a no brainer.  You will be able make calls and receive you emails in all but the most remote areas. If you have kids in your car or are buying a phone for teens who drive, then Verizon is a safe choice. You won’t have to worry about your 17-year-old running out of gas and not being able to call you for help.  Verizon has the largest LTE footprint, so it’s a perfect fit for data-hungry consumers who want LTE everywhere they go.

AT&T

Behind Verizon is AT&T, the carrier covers the major metropolitan areas and the rural areas, but its footprint is not as extensive as “Big Red.”  There are still a lot of gaps in AT&A’s coverage, especially when you get off the beaten path. Like Verizon AT&T is rapidly building out its LTE network. The carrier now offers LTE in 400 markets nationwide and that number is increasing quarterly. Because its network is not as heavily used as Verizon’s network, AT&T tends to have faster speeds. AT&T is a GSM network and supports simultaneous voice and data.

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Who should buy an iPhone on  AT&T

AT&T may not have the coverage of Verizon, but it has a fast and reliable LTE network. Choose AT&T if you stay mostly in populated areas and want fast data connectivity.

Sprint

Next up is Sprint, which covers the major metropolitan areas and some of the outlying areas. It roams on Verizon’s 3G network in the more rural areas, but you may lose some of your data features in these outlying locations. Sprint is also building out its LTE network and using all the resources at its disposal. The carrier recently shut down its Nextel push-to-talk network and bought out WiMAX provider ClearWire as way to boost it coverage.  The carrier now has LTE in more than 151 markets nationwide. Like Verizon, Sprint’s voice calls are carried on it CDMA network, which does not support simultaneous voice and data.

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Who should buy an iPhone on Sprint

Choose Sprint if you stick to the suburbs and aren’t picky about your data connectivity when go into the rural areas. It also has decent 3G and calling coverage thanks to a roaming agreement on partner carriers like Verizon Wireless and US Cellular.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has the smallest footprint. It is strong in the metropolitan areas, spotty in areas outside of the city and non-existent in the rural areas. T-Mobile fired up its LTE network in March 2013 and it’s been building it out a blazing fast pace. The carrier hopes to cover 200 markets with LTE by the end of this year. It is also repurposing its current network to boost its 4G coverage. Like AT&T, T-Mobile is a GSM network and supports simultaneous voice and data.

Who should buy an iPhone on T-Mobile
If you live in a metropolitan area, then T-Mobile is an excellent choice. You’ll get decent coverage now and that’ll likely improve in the coming year.

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Conclusion

In the end, the best carrier is the one that offers service in your area. If you live in a city, you will likely have a choice and can use pricing as your determining factor. If you live in a rural area, you will be limited to the carrier’s that offer service where you live and travel. I fall into the latter group and have only one option — Verizon Wireless. To see which carriers offer coverage in your area, use the links below to check out each carrier’s coverage maps.