Thanks to (previously mentioned) problems with AT&T at my new apartment, I’m in the market for a new cell phone carrier.
Unfortunately, this being the US, that means I also am in the market for a new phone. Mind you, I’m perfectly happy with my current phone. if I could use it on someone else’s network (i.e. not AT&T), I’d be happy to. But I can’t.
First, there is the problem of competing cell radio technologies. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM (as does most of the rest of the world). Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. Since most phones (including my current one) only have one radio, the total number of choices is at best 2.
Of course in reality, for a given phone, there is usually only 1 choice, because cell carriers typically lock phones to their own network using software. In theory you can get your phone unlocked after your contract runs out, but in practice that never happens. CDMA phones require a fairly complicated firmware updating procedure (which is illegal to do yourself). GSM phones are just as bad. AT&T for example will not unlock iPhones under any circumstances, contract or no.
All of which means that in order to leave AT&T, I have to get a new phone. It’s a stupid, wasteful system which serves nobody except possibly the carriers, but they make the rules here, so that’s the way it is.
So rather than choosing a phone, and then a carrier, you have to choose a carrier and then a phone. Fortunately most of the better phones are available on most networks, but there are always exceptions. Until this January, the iPhone was only available on AT&T (the main reason I’ve used them until now).
I’ve done a little research on the major carriers, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
AT&T – large network but lots of dead zones and generally marginal service areas.
T-Mobile – more limited coverage than AT&T in many areas, though fewer gaps in the middle of areas that are supposed to have service.
Verizon – unsavory billing practices, poor attitudes regarding privacy (i.e. they track your browsing habits and share that info. with advertisers). But they do have the widest coverage (and fewest reports of network issues).
Sprint – most limited coverage (though again fewer reports of problems than AT&T in supposedly ‘covered’ areas).
(The newest Apple iPhone is an even more bizarre case. The phone actually has 2 radios, for both CDMA and GSM. But the GSM version is locked to AT&T, and the CDMA versions are locked to Sprint and Verizon respectively. You can buy an unlocked GSM version (at a ridiculous price) but it will only work with AT&T SIMs in the US (in Europe, it will supposedly accept any SIM).