T-Mobile vs. AT&T–A Cross-Country Comparison


So, in our cross-country trip, one of the things we did while resting in NC was switch phone carriers, from AT&T to T-Mobile. My reasons for doing this were quite simple, and come down to a combination of idealism, frugality, and vengeance.

On the idealism front, I really like the ‘uncarrier’ theme T-Mobile is going with these days. It’s part marketing gimmick, to be sure, but there’s also some real changes in there, like actual unlimited data plans.

From the frugality side, it is slightly cheaper on T-Mobile than AT&T, even after my old Microsoft discount on AT&T.

Vengeance, on the other hand, is simply about sticking it to AT&T for deceptive business practices. See, when I upgraded to an iPhone originally (roughly 6 years ago), I chose the top-end unlimited data plan for not just my phone, but also my wife and youngest son’s phones. When AT&T canceled that plan, I was fine, because I was grandfathered in. However, they then started throttling the data, which I find highly deceptive and customer-hostile, and I’ve been itching to drop them like a bad habit ever since.

Now that you know my reasons, let’s get into the nuts and bolts and compare the two:

Reception

First and foremost, I’ve actually been cross-country with both networks at this point, so I can compare this across large swathes of the US. AT&T has very, very good reception. I can’t remember many times in which I had no signal, even out in the middle of the Mojave, which is a big deal when you are driving without an agenda and exploring remote areas.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, has pretty horrible reception. This is actually their worst feature, as their coverage is spotty to non-existent in rural areas. The common theme on T-Mobile was to expect no signal at all until we got within about 10 miles of a major city, which made Waze pretty close to useless at times (I had to fall back to the in-car GPS).

Even worse, T-Mobile largely uses the 1700 and 2100 Mhz ranges for 4G, which means that they do not penetrate buildings, unlike the lower frequencies used by AT&T and Verizon. This means that, even in an area with a strong LTE signal (like the majority of Silicon Valley), when you walk into a building, you can expect to completely lose the ability to use data.

To be fair, this isn’t T-Mobile’s fault. The lower frequencies are hogged by AT&T and Verizon, and to their credit, T-Mobile is petitioning to take over a range that Verizon rents but does not use. However, at present, this is the situation: If you live in a remote area, your data  coverage will suck, and even if you don’t, you’ll need to connect to Wifi in most indoor locations.

Data Speed

This is T-Mobile’s strong suit: LTE data is fast. I’ve seen 30Mbps on LTE, which is crazy on a mobile phone, and makes tethering a joy. The fact that they include a pretty generous tethering plan in the unlimited data plans is also helpful here, and (horrible indoor reception notwithstanding) I successfully used tethering several times on the trip to escape slow hotel Wifi networks.

4G signal speed is about the same as AT&T’s listed 3G speeds. Anything other than 4G might as well be non-existent, and this is the downfall of T-Mobile. When it works, it’s awesome…I just wish that was more often.

Voice Quality

This is pretty much a toss-up, in my opinion. I got lots of dropped calls on AT&T, and that hasn’t improved significantly on T-Mobile…but I don’t think it’s any worse either. On the plus side, T-Mobile has Wifi calling, which allows you to place and receive VoIP calls any time you are connected to a Wifi network, which goes a long way towards making up for the poor indoor reception.

Customer Service

This is the second best feature of T-Mobile. For both my wife and myself, customer service interactions with T-Mobile have all been excellent. This is in sharp contrast to AT&T, which has always been marked by long waits and frustration.

Cost

As I said in the beginning, T-Mobile is slightly cheaper for us, month-to-month. However, they did pay the full termination fees for AT&T as well as give us some trade-in value on our old phones, which is a pretty cool benefit of switching.

Final Assessment

Overall, as long as I stay in Silicon Valley, I’ll probably stay with T-Mobile. On the whole, AT&T comes out slightly ahead, even here, but it’s really minor. At this point, I have no hope that AT&T will get any better, and a lot of hope that T-Mobile will, so I’m voting with my wallet. That being said, if I move out of this area, there’s a good chance I’ll be switching again. T-Mobile is a horrible choice if you are outside of their LTE coverage area.

  1. #1 by Paul Robichaux on November 12, 2014 - 8:10 am

    I’ve been flirting with the idea of moving to T-Mobile for the same reasons you cite, but I am leery of their coverage here in semi-rural Alabama. I’m also not sure what their device roadmap looks like, which I guess only matters for people who aren’t automatically going to buy the latest iDevice.

    • #2 by Brian Hill on December 5, 2014 - 2:11 pm

      Shit Paul, sorry this took so long to approve, I missed it. If you are looking for Windows phones, I can’t help you, I spent zero time looking at them, but I imagine anything made for an LTE network works with T-Mobile. Hell, anything made for AT&T can technically work with T-Mobile, just slowly. If you are curoius about coverage, check thier site; the coverage map seems pretty accurate. If it says you’ll have LTE, you are good, but otherwise, you’re going to have a bad time. :(

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