Deciding On a 4G Operator for Your iPad Mini

The new Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad Mini and the latest fourth-generation iPads open up the options available to potential users in the U.S. that want a 4G tablet.

The latest Long Term Evolution (LTE) version of the 10.1-inch iPad and its new 7.9-inch brother will work on the Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) 4G network, as well as the LTE networks of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless .

But the 4G LTE iPad Mini starts at $459, with no upfront subsidies from any operators. It's a healthy chunk of change to spend on 4G. So, which operator should you pick?

Well, I'm here to try and help with that.

Here's how many towns and cities each operator supports as of Oct. 23. These totals change regularly, so check back with Light Reading Mobile often to keep up to date.

Table 1: Key U.S. LTE operators coverage at the end of 2012
Operator AT&T Verizon Wireless Sprint
No. of live LTE markets 77 419 32
No. of live markets by end of 2012 100 Verizon has beaten its 2012 target, plans to add an undisclosed number of new markets. Sprint says it plans to add 115 "in the coming months," without a definite time-scale.
Sources: LR Mobile, carrier data

As you can see, Verizon easily beats the competition for coverage at the moment. AT&T and Sprint are unlikely to get close to catching up until well into 2013. So, if a widespread 4G LTE connection is your iPad priority, then Verizon is your clear choice.

For its part, AT&T offers the fastest 3G connection when LTE is unavailable.

Data pricing, however, throws a different light on the picture.

Table 2: Data Plan Pricing
Operator AT&T Verizon Wireless Sprint
Tablet data plan bucket 250MB/3GB/5GB 1GB/2GB/5GB/10GB 3GB/6GB/12GB
Tablet data plan cost $14.99/$30/$50 $20/$30/$50/$80 $34.99/$49.99/$79.99
Source: Operator data

For iPad users who expect to do the vast majority of their iPad browsing on a Wi-Fi connection, the 250MB AT&T plan offers the most cost-effective 4G fallback, assuming you are in one of AT&T's LTE cities. Be careful, however, as it is easy to blow through that amount of data on a 4G connection.

For users who plan to lean heavily on the 4G connection on their tablet, the Sprint plans offer the best bang-for-the-buck. Again, you'll need to be in one of the cities Sprint has LTE in to take advantage of that fast connection.

Please note: AT&T and Verizon also offer shared data plans where you can add a tablet to a plan for $10 a month. These plans typically start at $40 a month and can quickly add up. (See AT&T Joins Verizon in the Shared Data Pool.) I think data speeds are less of a concern here, as all the 4G networks offer acceptable download speeds for most any application you could throw at them.

For the record, Sprint claims average downloads of 6 to 8Mbit/s. Verizon says its network achieves averages of 5 to 12Mbit/s.

AT&T doesn't break out figures, selling LTE as being 10 times faster than 3G. Testing from RootMetrics , however, has found Ma Bell's new 4G on a par with, or sometimes faster than, Verizon's 4G network.

For more

bergea 12/5/2012 | 5:18:43 PM
re: Deciding On a 4G Operator for Your iPad Mini The real question is whether iPad Mini buyers will be any more likely to sign up for a mobile data plan than iPad 3 users. At today's rates, users could run up a huge bill in just a few hours of using their new iPad Mini with 4G LTE. With free WiFi at home and work, they may buy a model with mobile connectivity and never use it. What is your guestimate?
joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:18:42 PM
re: Deciding On a 4G Operator for Your iPad Mini

I would guess 80/20 Wifi-only & Wifi+LTE.

Sign In