Answer: The one that works best at your current location…
Cellular data is probably the easiest and most accessible option for getting online in most places across the USA.
But as simple as it can seem on paper, cellular is also sometimes a confusing subject – primarily because there are just so many options!
You have to choose which carrier(s) you want, which plans make sense, what equipment to purchase, and how much speed and data you actually need.
If you live in one location and only travel occasionally, it’s relatively easy to pick the best cellular carrier.
You can ask your friends and neighbors for experience, check the carrier’s coverage maps, and you can check crowdsourced coverage maps like Root Metrics or Open Signal.
While there might be an obvious “best” network for a specific location, frequent travelers have a harder choice to make since… our location changes, often!
There simply is no single network that works best everywhere.
All of the nationwide carriers have their strengths and weaknesses in various locations across the country. And each offers different plans & policies that make them more or less suitable as a mobile internet solution depending on your needs.
As a frequent traveler, you need to consider what carrier – or, more than likely, what combination of carriers – will give you coverage and data in the places you want to visit.
This article is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the current major carriers (Verizon, AT&T and the combined T-Mobile & Sprint) in the U.S. as they relate to mobile internet for RVers, cruisers and frequent travelers seeking an on-the-go home internet replacement.
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We created a 17 minute video that overviews the four carriers (will be updated in early 2021):
All carriers embraced the same underlying fourth-generation (4G) cellular network technology, known as LTE – though they use different towers and transmit on different frequency bands resulting in vastly different coverage maps and performance, despite the technological similarities.
5G technology is being deployed in new short-range mmWave (extremely fast, but short-range), mid-band, and low-band spectrum. Each carrier has its own roadmap to their deployment, so deciding when it is time to hop on board is carrier-specific.
The carriers have very different legacy 2G and 3G networks too, which will be phased-out over time.
When comparing carriers – you need to keep coverage maps, compatible devices, supported frequency bands, and expansion plans going forward towards 5G all in mind.
For more on understanding the technology behind cellular:
Cellular Data Resources – Gear, Plans, Signal, Tech Dives
The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is nationwide. And for those relying on cellular-based internet as they move around the country, LTE coverage is still the most important and 5G something to definitely factor in as more smartphones, tablets, and hotspots support this new technology.
In the US, the current four major nationwide carriers are:
- Verizon – Has the most nationwide LTE coverage, and is usually a top pick for travelers, although frequently congested.
- AT&T – Close second to Verizon in terms of coverage but also generally less congested.
- T-Mobile – Rapidly closing their LTE coverage gap with their massive spectrum holdings in long-range 600 MHz, and leading the race to 5G.
- Sprint – Traditionally only useful when close to bigger cities, however, most plans now also roam onto T-Mobile since the merger.
- December 2020 Update – The merger with T-Mobile continues to progress. Eventually, all Sprint customers will become T-mobile customers, and their networks will be merged – but this will be a multi-year process. Sprint customers can now elect to become T-Mobile customer with their THX program, and many Sprint based plans now roam onto T-Mobile towers when there’s no Sprint signal.
Coverage Map Comparison
Below is a quick comparison of the four carrier’s native LTE & 5G (the darker color) coverage maps, taken from the December 2020 HD Map update from our app, Coverage?:
For more on the carriers for RVers & Cruisers:
Although you can go to each carrier’s maps online to scout out ahead, we decided to make it even easier.
We wrote an app for that!
Coverage? overlays the carrier’s coverage maps so you can create a personalized map to better plan your travels around connectivity!
While the carrier’s maps may be ‘optimistic’ at times, using the carrier’s maps is a great complement to also checking site-specific crowdsourced resources.
Tips for Travel Planning Around
Connectivity for RVers and Cruisers
The maps are stored on device, so you don’t need to have coverage to find out which direction to head. Get the app now for Android or iOS:
A general profile of each of the four major carriers is below.
Verizon is the largest cellular carrier in the USA.
It has the widest overall coverage area, the most deployed LTE, and typically good overall performance. If you ask in any RVing or boating group about what is the best carrier, Verizon is the most common answer.
For these reasons, if you’re only going to choose one network – Verizon is the natural top choice.
However, because Verizon’s network is known to have the widest coverage and is the most popular network amongst nomads, it’s not uncommon to find that the local Verizon tower is overloaded and sluggish during peak times, especially in locations that are popular for travelers.
When congested, Verizon can be quite aggressive in its network management slowdowns – and, in practice, Verizon often isn’t the best pick in many locations.
Verizon LTE Device Compatibility Tips:
If you want broad compatibility with Verizon’s network, seek out devices that support these core LTE bands:
2, 4, 5, 13
And for maximum compatibility and future-proofing, look for support for as many of these additional bands as possible (in rough order of importance):
66, 12, 14, 30, 29, 46
- 3G – Verizon’s 3G network will be retired at the end of 2020, and many newer Verizon devices long ago dropped support for 3G. There’s no longer any point in seeking out devices with backward compatibility.
- 5G – Verizon’s initial 5G focus on was on ultra short range and fast mmWave coverage in urban areas, and they released some longer range shared 5G over shared spectrum with LTE in mid-2020. In practice, the long range 5G isn’t proving to be much faster than their LTE. Verizon’s future stake in 5G is dependent on them acquiring massive mid-range holdings via an FCC auction that will close in early 2021.
Recent Verizon News Stories:
AT&T is the second-largest carrier and is both a formidable rival and a great complement to Verizon for nomads.
Some even find an AT&T-only solution is feasible now.
AT&T’s LTE network sometimes lags Verizon in coverage, but there are also many parts of the country where AT&T excels – and sometimes it is the only option.
In 2018 AT&T began “climbing every tower” in their network to implement the FirstNet (LTE Band 14) network for first responders. They took the opportunity to upgrade their towers in general.
As this upgrade has spread across the nation, AT&T customers have reported noticeable speed improvements. And when there’s not a local emergency, regular consumers can access the often un-congested Band 14 if they have compatible gear.
We rarely get reports of problems with network management issues on AT&T.
A combination of Verizon and AT&T on board gives the widest possible coverage across the country.
AT&T LTE Device Compatibility Tips:
If you want broad compatibility with AT&T’s network, seek out devices that support these core LTE bands:
2, 4, 5, 12/17, 14
And for maximum compatibility and future proofing, look for support for as many of these additional bands as possible (in rough order of importance):
30, 29, 13, 66, 46
- 3G – ATT’s older 3G/HSPA+ is scheduled to be shut down by February 2022 and any phone without VoLTE support will no longer work on the carrier.
- 5G – AT&T is rolling out 5G on mmWave and lowband and now claims nationwide 5G coverage – but it’s just DSS over LTE, and in practice isn’t much faster than their LTE network. If you’re ready to hop on board AT&T 5G be sure to shop for devices that support both 5G and 5G+. 5GE however is what they call their LTE-Advanced technology and is not 5G.
Recent AT&T News Stories:
T-Mobile has been the carrier to watch – blowing past Sprint (and now even acquiring them) to take a solid third place in the overall cellular market.
T-Mobile is gunning for Verizon and AT&T next with their merger with Sprint. The merger gives T-Mobile access to lot of underutilized spectrum across the nation.
For a long time, T-Mobile’s biggest Achilles heel was its lack of raw coverage, particularly in rural areas and indoors – and T-Mobile still falls short of AT&T and Verizon when it comes to coverage. When T-Mobile does have coverage, however, its network speeds are consistently some of the fastest.
T-Mobile has been aggressively filling in the gaps. In 2017 T-Mobile acquired a huge chunk of 600MHz cellular spectrum (LTE Band 71) and has deployed this new band around the country for both LTE and their 5G network. It will continue this nationwide expansion in the years ahead.
But to benefit, you will need a compatible device capable of taking advantage of Band 71 (An Overview of T-Mobile LTE Band 71).
T-Mobile LTE Device Compatibility Tips:
If you want broad compatibility with T-Mobile’s network, seek out devices that support these core LTE bands:
2, 4, 5, 12, 71
And for maximum compatibility and future-proofing, look for support for as many of these additional bands as possible (in rough order of importance):
41, 25, 66, 26, 46
Merger, 3G & 5G Notes:
- Sprint Merger: T-Mobile customers will want to be able to benefit from Sprint’s LTE Bands 25. Mid range Band 41 will be particularly important in T-Mobile’s 5G coverage. Band 26 is slated to be sold to Dish Network to become an eventual new carrier.
- 3G: T-Mobile will be sunsetting their 3G network in early 2021 and are aggressively re-utilizing this spectrum for 5G.
- 5G: T-Mobile started their 5G deployment utilizing their very low band 600Mhz spectrum making them first to nationwide coverage, and is now also rolling out on mid band and mmWave. If you’re ready to hop on board with T-Mobile 5G, be sure any device you select supports all three types of 5G.
Recent T-Mobile News Stories:
With the merger with T-Mobile now complete on paper, Sprint’s website redirects to T-Mobile’s and new customers are directed to sign up for T-Mobile plans.
But for now, the carriers still operate somewhat independently – each with their own coverage map and customer service. And, for now anyway, you can request legacy Sprint plans as alternatives to T-Mobile plans in stores on via the phone. Customers who were on Sprint plans before the merger have the option to retain those plans for three years.
As of October 2020, T-Mobile is offering legacy Sprint customers the option to choose the “T-Mobile Network Experience” – aka TNX. TNX allows Sprint network customers with compatible devices to trade in their Sprint SIM card for a T-Mobile SIM card and move their plan to the T-Mobile network while retaining the features, billing, and terms of their original Sprint plan.
For plans that remain Sprint-based, when not in a Sprint signal area roam automatically onto T-Mobile towers – provided you have a compatible device.
The fourth-largest national cellular carrier was always been a technological oddball – and Sprint’s LTE network uses bands that none of the other carriers have embraced.
Sprint’s biggest advantage was that it tended to have affordable plan options, but the biggest downside was its limited nationwide coverage map.
The vast bulk of Sprint’s usable fast data coverage is pretty much only found in core urban areas and along major interstates. Outside of that, you’re often roaming with very slow speeds – if you can get online at all.
Sprint has been a worthwhile option for those who tend to stick to urban areas. But for most nomads, Sprint worked best as a backup option.
Sprint LTE Device Compatibility Tips:
If you want broad compatibility with Sprint’s network, seek out devices that support these three core LTE bands:
25, 26, 41
In the past, only these three bands mattered on Sprint, and many Sprint-branded devices ONLY supported these three. But now that T-Mobile roaming is available, compatibility with T-Mobile bands matters now too.
So for maximum compatibility and future-proofing, look for support for as many of these additional bands as possible (in rough order of importance):
12, 4, 2, 5, 71, 66
- 3G: With the merger with T-Mobile, Sprint’s 3G network should be rapidly re-utilized and shut down along with T-Mobile in early 2021.
- 5G: Sprint had begun rolling out 5G, but with the T-Mobile merger that network has been discontinued and existing 5G customers offered to switch to T-Mobile. All future 5G will be under the T-Mobile brand.
Recent Sprint News Stories:
In addition to the big four national carriers, there are a number of smaller regional and even local carriers that own and operate their own cellular networks.
Some of the larger examples include U.S. Cellular, C-Spire Wireless, nTelos, Cellcom, and Cellular One.
These smaller regional carriers are usually poor choices for travelers, unless you know that you are primarily going to be spending time in areas where they have a strong native presence.
Even if the regional carrier has nationwide coverage through roaming agreements, if you’re utilizing the service primarily outside its home region, you can find yourself running into all sorts of restrictions and limitations.
And if you are out of your home territory for too long – you will very likely end up getting your account canceled.
You can purchase service directly from each of the carriers as postpaid or prepaid service. Or, there are many resellers & MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) who offer plans on the major carrier networks with different features, pricing or restrictions.
Learn more About Data Plans:
Considerations for Selecting Cellular Data Plans
Browse Our Current Top Pick Data Plans:
Best Data Plans by Carrier
Data Plan Pricing Guide & Grid:
Data Plan Pricing Guide
All of the major carriers have their strengths and weaknesses. The best one for you may just be the one that works best in your current location. If you change locations frequently, you’ll want to determine which carrier, or possibly which combination of carriers, will give you the best coverage in the locations you’ll be visiting.
Selecting the right cellular data plan for your mobile internet needs is only one part of the equation. Here’s some further guides on understanding the selection process as well as the additional gear you might need.
Visible Enables 5G Support – Verizon’s 5G Network For As Little As $25/mo
Winegard Releases Two New Products – RangePro Booster and ConnecT 2.0 4G2+
T-Mobile Launches New Data-Only Plans & Inseego 5G MiFi M2000 Mobile Hotspot
FCC’s Massive C-Band Auction Begins – Shaping The Future of 5G
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