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iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

9:15 AM For US customers who are buying the iPhone 5 for 4G, Verizon seems like the most obvious choice, but there are reasons to pick AT&T or Sprint too

Dan Jones

September 13, 2012

3 Min Read
iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

9:15 AM -- So, which U.S. 4G carrier should you plunk your hard-earned cash down with for a shiny new Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone 5 come September 21? (See iPhone 5 Arrives With 4G LTE.)

Purely on 4G LTE coverage, it seems like Verizon Wireless easily beats rival operators, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S). Here's how the numbers line up right now:

Table 1: How the LTE Operators Stack Up





No. of live LTE markets




No. by end of 2012




*Sprint has only said so far that new cities will be deployed in the "coming months" without giving a definite time-scale.

To compete with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are trying to deploy Long Term Evolution (LTE) in major metro areas fast. One thing to consider, however -- Sprint's latest LTE deployment update still doesn't list any cities in either New Jersey or the Bay Area. (See Sprint: LTE in 100 Cities in the 'Coming Months'.)

Then you should consider whether you want to get unlimited data or have access to a shared plan for your family. AT&T and Verizon both offer shared plans with data caps for multiple devices. Sprint is the only operator to offer an unlimited plan. (See AT&T Joins Verizon in the Shared Data Pool.) That is not, however, the end of the story. Check out the technical details from Apple's LTE support page:

As you can see, AT&T's phone supports 4G roaming over the Canadian border with a few different operators. The Verizon and Sprint CDMA version can work on LTE with KDDI Corp. in Japan.

AT&T users can also revert to its 21Mbit/s high-speed packet access-plus 3G network, which averages out at 2 Mbit/s to 5 Mbit/s on downloads, when not in range of LTE. Sprint and Verizon users will revert to 3G CDMA connections that barely top 1 Mbit/s when not on 4G. (See What We Mean When We Say '4G'.)

So, here's the breakdown as I see it now:

AT&T's iPhone 5
Do pick: If decent 3G speed when outside of LTE coverage is important to you.
Don't pick: If Web surfing on 4G in Canada is too cold to contemplate most of the year.

Sprint's iPhone 5
Do pick: If unlimited data is what you crave the most.
Don't pick: If you live in the Bay Area or New Jersey, as it could be a while before LTE actually arrives.

Verizon's iPhone 5
Do pick: If you travel widely in the U.S. and need at least a chance of a fast 4G LTE connection outside of major urban areas.
Don't pick: If you've never been big in Japan.

Oh yeah, one last thing: Don't expect the 100Mbit/s download speeds on LTE that Apple promises in its tech specs on the iPhone 5.

That's all "based on theoretical peak speeds," the company says in the small print. "Actual speeds will be lower."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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