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
Operator AT&T Sprint Verizon
No. of live LTE markets 60 19 371
No. by end of 2012 100 100* 400
*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

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:21:07 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

You can fall back to 3G in Europe with the latest version of the iPhone. I don't know when any vendor will have a true LTE world phone, just too many radio bands to support.

hnabavi926 12/5/2012 | 5:21:07 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

It looks like, for now, there is limited capability of being able to continue to use LTE for an iPhone 5 user (regadless of the model) when travelling between the North America, Europe, and Asia (let alone other parts of the world) as each model supports only a separate set of LTE bands.

I wonder:

 (1) if, at least, the 3G fall back(s) are of the "Quad-Babd" type, and

 (2) how difficult (space, weight, and price-wise) would it be for Apple to make a globally LTE-usable version of iPhone in the foreseable future. 

milinski 12/5/2012 | 5:21:04 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

The fact that a Canadian or Japanese carrier is using the same LTE band will not automatically allow you to use LTE in these networks while roaming. LTE roaming will require different protocol interconnections than existing 3G roaming (Diameter instead of MAP). It is not clear when roaming agreements for LTE and the necessary infrastructure will be in place.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:20:58 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

Good point, I will check if they have the roaming agreements in place.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:20:07 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

So, theinitial iPhone 5 rush has been and gone, which carrier did you pick if you bought one?

JohnVoda 12/5/2012 | 5:18:55 PM
re: iPhone 5: Which 4G Carrier to Pick?

You failed to include in your article the fact that only on AT&T can you surf the web while talking.  May not be a critical distinction, but certainly important to many, and worth pointing out.

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