Comparing the details of various wireless service plans

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 21, 2010

The shiny new gadget you're showing off to friends is probably the least important part of your wireless service.

Sure, it lets you browse the Web, take pictures and even talk to other people. But your choice of carrier will cost you more -- in dollars and, potentially, misery caused by an inadequate network -- than the phone ever could.

That's something often overlooked, especially over the last week of product launches at the Mobile World Congress trade show. But that's the mundane reality of the wireless business.

So, as I've said before, evaluate a carrier's coverage first.

They all ought to cover the District and its neighbors well -- aside from the underground stretches of Metro, where AT&T and T-Mobile work in 20 stations but won't match Verizon and Sprint's more extensive access until fall 2012. But farther afield, Verizon offers the most extensive coverage and T-Mobile the weakest, with AT&T and Sprint in between.

If you want Web access on your phone (more on that later), you'll have to check two maps: one for little-faster-than-dialup "2G" service and another for "3G" broadband. Here Verizon again comes out first, Sprint's not that far behind, AT&T's limited 3G network holds it back, and T-Mobile, despite upgrades in progress, also suffers from patchy 3G coverage.

These four companies differ in their choice of wireless standards. AT&T and T-Mobile's GSM (Global System for Mobile) technology lets you browse the Web and talk simultaneously and use a phone in most other countries or on another compatible provider here.

Sprint and Verizon's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) lacks those advantages but comes with better domestic coverage. Sprint's Nextel phones, meanwhile, use the aging iDEN, which supports push-to-talk walkie-talkie chats but does little else.

If you don't use a mobile phone often, prepaid service makes more sense than subscription plans. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon sell prepaid packages directly, while Sprint does so through its Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile brands.

Pay-as-you-go prepaid, in which each minute on the phone costs a set amount, should save infrequent users the most money.

Among contract-required subscriptions, Sprint's start at $29.99 a month for 200 minutes; AT&T and Verizon's start at $39.99 a month for 400 minutes and T-Mobile offers 500 minutes for $39.99.

Because all these plans include unlimited or nearly unlimited night and weekend calls, many people will never exceed even those seemingly scant allotments. According to CTIA, the wireless industry's District-based trade association, the average customer used 740 minutes a month.

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