We’re down to three major carriers in the US; Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile following a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile back in 2020 which would absolve the Sprint brand. T-Mobile had a plan, and many novices and enthusiasts picked up on the underlying reasons for wanting Sprint. We wouldn’t know until many months following the merge what the true outcome would be however T-Mobile worked diligently and quickly to make this a reality.
I’d like to preface this article by mentioning that all my testing has been done in the small sample size of two states in New England, and is neither representative of those two states 5G performance or the performance of the overall 5G networks offered by the major three providers in the United States. While I had previously daily-driven AT&T, it should be noted my utilization of their platform is with a Connected Car Plan. My technical background comes from an my education through college, work experience, and self-taught skills. This entire blog post is my opinion in and of itself.
I consider myself to be a medium data user utilizing a combined 25-50GB of data across all carriers combined each month. While this usage does vary greatly depending on my usage and the amount I contribute to Coverage Map, SpeedTest, and Open Signal. If I were using a single plan, 50GB per month could be concerning on most cellular plans offered as most will start to deprioritize after that speed. This isn’t as big of a deal as you’d think, unless you are on a busy & congested tower regularly. Perhaps not the best for a business or enterprise customer.
This brings up QCI or the QOS of Cellular. QCI operates using numbers, and these can vary from network to network. Generally speaking, network operators use 1-9 for QCI values (priorities) with a lower number representing a higher priority on the network. This can be used in many ways such as setting a customer to a QCI value of 9 when they are deprioritized, or prioritizing plans used by Business, Enterprise, and Governments. AT&T uses this system to prioritize their FirstNet customers when they are connected to a non FirstNet equip tower.
That being said, unless you qualify for FirstNet and are wanting to utilize their network you would want a Postpaid phone plan to ensure the best network quality as NVMOs and Prepaid are normally deprioritized with some exceptions on select networks. If you’re not a heavy data user, or don’t mind the slight wait (at times) then a NVMO or Prepaid plan may be a viable option for your needs.
Ultimately each of these summaries will rely on coverage in your area and are in no particular order:
If you are looking for a high-speed network and live in an area with coverage, T-Mobile is a great pick. You get a large amount of high-priority data on most plans and their 5G coverage is phenomenal being deployed on most towers at the time of posting. They have a much wider deployment of 5G UC in several areas, not just strategic cities and areas. I have found UC signal in very random places on T-Mobile and have several Speedtests in the 500 Mbps range.
Maybe your focus is on reliability? If so, then I would pick AT&T. AT&T has built a solid network core, and with being selected for the FirstNet contract leads to even more of their cell towers being upgraded in terms of capacity and redundancy during outages. During one of the hurricanes that hit the East Coast many years back, AT&T and Verizon were the only two networks with working data and voice throughout the entire storm. In terms of coverage, AT&T has slightly more rural coverage compared against T-Mobile, and also a few agreements with National Parks for coverage if that is a concern to you.
And finally, Verizon. Verizon Wireless has both excellent speeds and coverage. Their 5G deployment is focused primarily on C-Band which is using the 2.5GHz frequency at close range. As a result of FCC pushback, waiting for licenses to be freed, and limiting many deployments to large cities their 5G performance has been lackluster. More deployments are anticipated in the upcoming months.
I will once again mention that your results will vary based on your location. Each provider has different technologies and locates their equipment at different locations all of which can affect speed, coverage, and redundancy/reliability. If you are unsure, grab an unlocked cell phone with access to the latest bands and purchase a prepaid SIM for each carrier and test. Grab results at different times of the day to get an idea of the performance. Generally speaking results averaged would dictate the speed of a postpaid plan. It should also be noted that many carriers deprioritize hotspot data irregardless.