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Battle Between iPhone 4S Service Providers: Which Offers the Best Data Plan?

Published
By Louis Ramirez, dealnews senior feature writer

For the first time ever, three mobile carriers will offer Apple's newest smartphone, the iPhone 4S, when it debuts on October 14. But while the phone may be the same across all carriers, the plans are not. So we stacked them side-by-side to find out which carrier offers the best iPhone data plan.

Least Expensive Cell Phone Packages

Verizon Wireless
Sprint
AT&T
Least-expensive plan
$30/mo for 2GB
(plus $39.99 for 450 minutes)
$69.99/mo + $10 for unlimited data
(with 450 minutes)
$15/mo for 200MB
(plus $39.99 for 450 minutes)
Top-of-the line plan
$80/mo for 10GB
(plus $69.99
for unlimited voice)
$99.99/mo + $10 for unlimited data
(with unlimited voice)
$45/mo for 4GB
(with tethering; plus $69.99 for unlimited voice)
Note: Prices current as of October 2011. All prices are subject to change.


Three Choices, One Winner

Out of the three major carriers to offer the iPhone 4S, Sprint is the only provider to offer true unlimited data. They've even confirmed that both the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4 will qualify for this plan. That's something Verizon and AT&T no longer offer to their customers. So, if you're a heavy data user who's looking to save money, Sprint is the hands-down winner. And that's good news for Sprint, which has been betting big on the new iPhone, hoping it can reverse some of its recent subscriber losses. However, with Sprint paying the largest subsidies out of the three carriers for each phone, some people are worried about how long the unlimited plan can last.

On the other hand, AT&T, which carried the original iPhone since 2007, now finds itself in an awkward situation. Not only must it continue to compete against Verizon, but it must now also do battle with Sprint. To lure subscribers to its camp AT&T is relying on something called HSPA+. AT&T claims its HSPA+ network is four times faster than other 3G networks. And while that may be true in ideal conditions, it's worth remembering that HSPA+ isn't available in every market yet. Another potential benefit for AT&T is that it will be the only provider to offer the free iPhone 3GS, since the 3GS is a GSM phone only and both Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology.


How Much Data Will You Need?

At $15 per month, AT&T offers the least-expensive data plan. And while most people will scoff at the thought of a measly 200MB of data, there are users who can take advantage of that budget plan. The trick is to monitor how much data you use. (AT&T offers a data calculator for that purpose.)

AT&T has also added some guidelines, noting that 200MB is enough for: 1,000 email messages (without attachments), 150 that do have attachments, 400 Web page views, posting 50 photos on Facebook, and watching 20 minutes of video from sites like YouTube or Hulu. Our advice, if you're a heavy app user, remember to factor in app updates into your total usage — especially since many of them can be larger than 5MB. Also, keep in mind that an app like Rage HD (a 782MB download) would set you over instantly.


Verizon Will Lean Heavily on its Expansive Network

Like AT&T, Verizon no longer offers an unlimited data plan, yet it charges nearly as much as Sprint for its basic plan. (It goes way over when it comes to premium data.) So, to combat the price discrepancies, Verizon will tout its network's quality — which has earned them the largest number of mobile subscribers in the U.S. — as a major selling point.

Additionally, they will market their iPhone 4S as a world phone, something they couldn't do with the previous iPhone 4, which was CDMA-only. However, it's still unclear whether the iPhone 4's SIM card will be locked to overseas roaming partners or if users will be free to pop in their own SIM card as they travel. The latter would be a huge perk (albeit an unlikely one coming from Verizon) for budget-conscious travelers.


The Bottom Line: Unlimited Data May Win Over Many Users

Ultimately, if you hate the thought of having to track your data usage, it's impossible to beat Sprint's unlimited offerings; even with its $10/month smartphone surcharge, it lets you download and stream without limitations or concerns about going over. If you just want the least-expensive plan possible (and a free iPhone 3GS), AT&T's plans might work out for you (if you don't mind those dropped calls). And Verizon fans, unfortunately, will have to pay close to Sprint's fees, or more, without the luxury of "all you can eat" data.


An avid gadget lover, Louis Ramirez has covered technology for Gizmodo, CNET, Laptop, and various other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @LouisRamirez. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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12 comments
wonger
What if I'm already grandfathered in on the unlimited data plan on ATT? I've still got it on my iphone 4. If I can continue with that, there's no reason for me to change.
crocostimpy
I have Sprint service. They are also charging the extra $10 as a general 'data usage' fee. My wife and I don't incur that charge because we signed up before they added it, but if we upgrade our phones or start a new contract after ours is up we will have to pay it. It started as a 4G only up-charge, but then spread to all data plans. I'd be a little irked if I had to pay the same amount as a 4G user but didn't have 4G myself.
unpaidintern
@LouisRamirez  If your going to be so kind as to put a breakdown of plans together make sure you have all the info, otherwise it's kind of a disservice. I just checked Verizon's website to confirm, here is what I found:
Verizon Minimum Plan:
$39.99 Voice (450 Minutes)
$20 Unlimited Text
$30 2gb Internet
= $89.99 

AT&T Minimum Plan:
$39.99 Voice (450 Minutes and Rollover)
$20 Unlimited Text
$25 2gb Internet
= $84.99

Sprint Minimum Plan:
$69.99 Unlimited Internet, Text and minutes to mobile phone, 450 minutes to landlines
$10 Smartphone Data Charge
=$79.99

That is a correct comparison.
unpaidintern
Your comparison doesn't even mention that Sprint gives unlimited calls to ANY MOBILE PHONES on their data plans. The 450 minutes is to landlines. No other carriers can top that. 

Also, you failed to mention the additional charges for text messaging with Verizon and AT&T. I believe you have to pay extra for those, I don't think they are included. Sprint bundles all that in the base plan.

As far as the insurance goes, Sprint has not yet said whether or not insurance will be available for the iPhone so until they do I wouldn't discount that. I would be suppressed if they didn't have it since they offer it on their android phones.

I've had Sprint for a while now and their plans are unquestionably the best plans around. Period.
smclelland84
I would like to look at the pricing for sprint a bit more closely as it is my understand that the +$10 premium is for 4G service, as the new iPhone 4S will rely on plane jane 3G that fee may not be applicable in this situation....Time will tell i guess
vette21man
Great points! This article combined with your comment allows for a good decision to be made. Thanks!
KernelG
Where I live in the SF Bay Area, AT&T coverage is actually good and I remember a friend having to go outside the building to use his Sprint phone. I also tend to be near WiFi often, so AT&T's 200 MB $15 data plan works (rarely go over 120 MB). My monthly bill, with taxes/fees and the $5 iPhone 200 SMS plan—hope I can keep that—is a nice $62.85 total. I'm not locked into a contract at the moment, not skeptical of Sprint's unlimited data, but I'll stick with AT&T anyway.
southpaw32
AppleCare+ will be available to anyone who buys an iPhone, so equipment protection through a carrier isn't necessary.
McFly
One thing  ppl are not considering is that Verizon offers the equipment protection plan which the other carriers don't.
ken94538
I want use iPhone with a pre-paid voice plan. But no one offer it. T-mobile can do it, but have to be an unlocked iPhone.
rjbruce
The inclusion of the basic wireless plan helps the article, but there are still a lot of items left out.  2GB is typically more than enough for the average user, apps/videos/music greater than 20MB can not be downloaded over 3G/cellular networks without a jailbreak (Rage HD would require wifi), AT&T's standard HSPA network is typically faster than Verizon or Sprint's CDMA based data without leaping to the HSPA+. It also allows you to use your data and talk at the same time, which I find I use more than I would have thought.  Verizon does have fewer dropped calls in some metro areas and offer better speed via CDMA in more rural areas than AT&T's Edge network.

My recommendation...

Strictly from a cost perspective, Sprint offers the best value for sure, but in my area I have a few relatives that have found their coverage spotty.  If the coverage in your area is good, this will be the best bargain.

If you are in a rural area or somewhere that the other carriers have spotty service, Verizon is going to be the carrier to go with.

If you want to use your new iPhone to it's "fullest" (HSPA/HSPA+ speeds, data and talk simultaneously) AT&T is the only choice.  Be sure to check with family and friends with AT&T's service for reliability and service maps for 3G coverage.
mastercolin
This is a horrible comparison. It is impossible to get a data Plan without a voice plan. So you should be comparing the total price of the lowest level plan.

Also Remember that Sprint charges a $10 premium data charge and also has unlimited text messages included in that price.  
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