National Cell Phone Plan?

Posted by

The term “national service” seems to be relative when it comes to getting cell phone serice in the United States. We just got back from a cross-country trip to visit family in Iowa about a week ago. Along the way, we made stopovers at Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore, as well as numerous towns in the Northwestern United States as we passed through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa. The return trip routed us through Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The trip was a classic American family vacation, filled with beautiful countryside, odd roadside stops, too much junk food, and my strong desire to never hear the same songs again. It was also filled with hundreds of miles of lousy cell phone coverage.
Among the necessary supplies for the trip we included Robin’s iPhone on the AT&T network, my Nexus One on T-Mobile, and my Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G personal WiFi hotspot. Two things are true about my cell phone usage. First, I rarely use my cell phone for voice. Second, if I don’t have access to a data network, my cell phone is largely useless to me. While I don’t need to be connected 100% of the time, having the option is nice and I certainly expect all features to function when I arrive in any town larger than 50,000 people. Unfortunately, I’m finding that T-Mobile, which I use because it’s the only service that works at my house, might be the worst “national carrier” in the country in terms of cellular data coverage.
As we travelled, I attempted to log each stop we made using Foursquare on my phone. If you haven’t used Foursquare, it’s a cool app, available on smartphones and in a browser, that lets you keep track of the locations you visit. I wanted to log our stops because I thought it might be fun to look back later and remember the places we visited. T-Mobile with an unlimited data plan makes this feat impossible because T-Mobile has really lousy coverage outside of major metropolitan areas. My best estimate is that we had access to the T-Mobile data network for about 500 miles of road in what was approximately 2500 miles covered. In other words, if you plan to leave major metropolitan areas, don’t count on T-Mobile. To all the people who have asked me why I don’t drop my Sprint Overdrive and just tether my laptop to my Nexus One, my response is I like having a data plan that always works.
AT&T performed better than T-Mobile and even had cell phone access in Yellowstone at points where T-Mobile couldn’t pick up a roaming voice network. Still AT&T was unavailable for large stretches along our journey as well. My data-only Sprint plan worked everywhere I wanted it to, except a few places in Yellowstone and the Black Hills where it couldn’t find a cell tower. Because I had the Overdrive with me, I could still check into Foursquare and log various stops using the Sprint data network to connect my T-Mobile phone. Sprint allowed me to book hotel rooms from the road when we made plans to stop for the night. Both T-Mobile and AT&T had times where I would not have been able to look up a hotel online. I’m guessing Verizon has coverage equivalent to Sprint based on the number of Verizon stores I saw along our route.
I know most other countries offer far better cell phone provider options, because you don’t get locked in to a carrier the way we do it here in the United States. I’d be curious to know if using data plans is any better or worse. I know that China seems to have service almost anywhere, even if the network speed is typically slower than the 3G networks here. What’s your experience with using a cell phone data plan? Good? Bad? Share your thoughts!

Advertisements

30 comments

  1. We did the Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands trip a couple of years ago. I was pretty happy with the Verizon coverage. While I’m driving our motorhome, my wife is in the back on the internet. She complained very little about the coverage.

  2. We did the Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands trip a couple of years ago. I was pretty happy with the Verizon coverage. While I’m driving our motorhome, my wife is in the back on the internet. She complained very little about the coverage.

  3. We just returned from a similar 4 week trip through Badlands, Yellowstone, Oregon, No California, So Cal, New Mexico. Earlier this summer it was the east coast. I have Verizon and I was very pleased with their service. There were only few places that I couldn’t get data access, and that was always in some remote valley.

  4. We just returned from a similar 4 week trip through Badlands, Yellowstone, Oregon, No California, So Cal, New Mexico. Earlier this summer it was the east coast. I have Verizon and I was very pleased with their service. There were only few places that I couldn’t get data access, and that was always in some remote valley.

  5. Jake, you have a remarkable grasp of the obvious….It is well known that TMobile is best in large metros (although they have well documented issues in NYC) And their customer service is the best…
    I live in MN and when people are in remote areas, Verizon is consistently the best network. That being said, I switched from TMobile to AT&T to get an iPhone and have had few service issues…

  6. Jake, you have a remarkable grasp of the obvious….It is well known that TMobile is best in large metros (although they have well documented issues in NYC) And their customer service is the best…
    I live in MN and when people are in remote areas, Verizon is consistently the best network. That being said, I switched from TMobile to AT&T to get an iPhone and have had few service issues…

  7. I have had Verizon (telephone and air card) for a few years now after bouncing back and forth between what has now become AT&T and what has now become Verizon. I found many areas that Bellsouth Mobility (now AT&T) had absolutely no service and the next year, when I had switched to Verizon, coverage along the same route was excellent.
    Just my personal observation from my non-scientific default testing and the reason I am a Verizon customer. Perhaps your experience would have been somewhat better if a Verizon telephone had been in the mix.

  8. I have had Verizon (telephone and air card) for a few years now after bouncing back and forth between what has now become AT&T and what has now become Verizon. I found many areas that Bellsouth Mobility (now AT&T) had absolutely no service and the next year, when I had switched to Verizon, coverage along the same route was excellent.
    Just my personal observation from my non-scientific default testing and the reason I am a Verizon customer. Perhaps your experience would have been somewhat better if a Verizon telephone had been in the mix.

  9. As a British Tourist who has made 2 four weeks tours of the Rockies covering generally the areas Jake covered I was dismayed at lack of mobile phone coverage. My UK phone’s US partner was AT & T which appeared to have very bad coverage in the Rockies. Talking to locals the general opinion was that Verizon was the best of a bad lot but I could not receive Verizon even though my UK phone provider Vodafone was a part owner of Verizon.

  10. As a British Tourist who has made 2 four weeks tours of the Rockies covering generally the areas Jake covered I was dismayed at lack of mobile phone coverage. My UK phone’s US partner was AT & T which appeared to have very bad coverage in the Rockies. Talking to locals the general opinion was that Verizon was the best of a bad lot but I could not receive Verizon even though my UK phone provider Vodafone was a part owner of Verizon.

  11. I have been traveling for the last 8 yes in a quartet all over the country and also in other countries as well. With the exception of 2 yrs that I was with craptell (aka-nextel), I have been an ATT customer, while the other quartet members have been using either T-mobile or Verizon. T-mobile, as you said seems to be the worst for both phone and data. Having said that, the 2 big carriers switch on who has coverage and who doesn’t when it comes to strictly making phone calls. I’ll have coverage when they don’t, and then they have coverage when I don’t. It’s pretty much a wash, but when it come to data, I would have to give that one for right now to Verizon. Although I am a dedicated ATT customer, Verizon’s data plan definitely has better coverage. In the larger cities where AT&T has good coverage, their download times can exceed 4mbs, but if you drop out of 3G coverage…you might as well go get a nap waiting for a page to load.
    Having know this, I still bought the new iPhone 4 and kept my unlimited data plan. I still think that AT&T still is the better of the two world wide, but in the US, verizon seems to getting the upper hand when it come to data.
    Hope this helps.

  12. I have been traveling for the last 8 yes in a quartet all over the country and also in other countries as well. With the exception of 2 yrs that I was with craptell (aka-nextel), I have been an ATT customer, while the other quartet members have been using either T-mobile or Verizon. T-mobile, as you said seems to be the worst for both phone and data. Having said that, the 2 big carriers switch on who has coverage and who doesn’t when it comes to strictly making phone calls. I’ll have coverage when they don’t, and then they have coverage when I don’t. It’s pretty much a wash, but when it come to data, I would have to give that one for right now to Verizon. Although I am a dedicated ATT customer, Verizon’s data plan definitely has better coverage. In the larger cities where AT&T has good coverage, their download times can exceed 4mbs, but if you drop out of 3G coverage…you might as well go get a nap waiting for a page to load.
    Having know this, I still bought the new iPhone 4 and kept my unlimited data plan. I still think that AT&T still is the better of the two world wide, but in the US, verizon seems to getting the upper hand when it come to data.
    Hope this helps.

  13. I use Verizon and did a similar trip this summer but included Alaska and of course Canada. I had good coverage except in the most remote places, and 3G service many times. I turned my phone off in Canada to avoid high roaming charges.

  14. I have tried AT&T, T-Mobile at our cabin on the Blue Ridge (long way from any town) and only Sprint seems to work in that whole area. The ohers give spotty coverate at best.

  15. I have tried AT&T, T-Mobile at our cabin on the Blue Ridge (long way from any town) and only Sprint seems to work in that whole area. The ohers give spotty coverate at best.

  16. I use Verizon and did a similar trip this summer but included Alaska and of course Canada. I had good coverage except in the most remote places, and 3G service many times. I turned my phone off in Canada to avoid high roaming charges.

  17. I’ve had T-Mobile for years, for similar reasons that you mention, as well as the slightly cheaper data plans and specific phone options (Sidekick, then G1). My experiences have been similar, with good data coverage near home, but spotty in areas between major cities. I’m about to finish up a contract with them, but I have such a good family voice plan with them it will be expensive to switch. Since I don’t travel much, it’s not as crucial to me to have great in-between coverage.
    On kind of a minor note, I notice you mention foursquare for traveling. I personally use Gowalla, and have found it to be a much better experience. With their “passport” analogy, you get extra stamps for each state you check-in at, and the individual locations have stamps (with many famous places having unique stamps). It really encourages me to visit new places, and new types of places. Here’s a link to my regions page, which shows state and country check-ins (which are awarded automatically when you check-in to a location): http://gowalla.com/users/lukeluca/pins/regions

  18. I’ve had T-Mobile for years, for similar reasons that you mention, as well as the slightly cheaper data plans and specific phone options (Sidekick, then G1). My experiences have been similar, with good data coverage near home, but spotty in areas between major cities. I’m about to finish up a contract with them, but I have such a good family voice plan with them it will be expensive to switch. Since I don’t travel much, it’s not as crucial to me to have great in-between coverage.
    On kind of a minor note, I notice you mention foursquare for traveling. I personally use Gowalla, and have found it to be a much better experience. With their “passport” analogy, you get extra stamps for each state you check-in at, and the individual locations have stamps (with many famous places having unique stamps). It really encourages me to visit new places, and new types of places. Here’s a link to my regions page, which shows state and country check-ins (which are awarded automatically when you check-in to a location): http://gowalla.com/users/lukeluca/pins/regions

  19. Verizon & Sprint both use CDMA/EVO networks that mean if you can’t catch a tower from your provider you can “roam” to one of the other CDMA carrier’s towers. Verizon acquired Alltel about 2 yrs ago which had the largest geographic coverage. What that means is that if you need coverage outside of major metro areas you need a carrier that uses CDMA. CDMA networks cover almost every nook & cranny of the US (and the UK).

  20. Verizon & Sprint both use CDMA/EVO networks that mean if you can’t catch a tower from your provider you can “roam” to one of the other CDMA carrier’s towers. Verizon acquired Alltel about 2 yrs ago which had the largest geographic coverage. What that means is that if you need coverage outside of major metro areas you need a carrier that uses CDMA. CDMA networks cover almost every nook & cranny of the US (and the UK).

  21. While not “major” places like Billings, MT aren’t so remote that coverage wouldn’t be warranted. I also don’t buy that it’s a CDMA vs. GSM issue. In many places where T-Mobile roams to companies like Cellular One (now a part of AT&T) and i-Wireless, they are hitting a GSM network, they simply haven’t done a deal to make it possible for me to use data on the network.

  22. While not “major” places like Billings, MT aren’t so remote that coverage wouldn’t be warranted. I also don’t buy that it’s a CDMA vs. GSM issue. In many places where T-Mobile roams to companies like Cellular One (now a part of AT&T) and i-Wireless, they are hitting a GSM network, they simply haven’t done a deal to make it possible for me to use data on the network.

  23. I live in Montana and there is no cell service in my town. It’s a small town with lots of tourists in the summer. If we want to add minutes to our trackfones we have to drive 20 miles each way over a pass in the winter to find service. The powers-that-be in our town have tried for years to get a tower here, but none of the cell phone companies will do it. (When I moved here I sure went into culture shock. ;-). )

  24. I live in Montana and there is no cell service in my town. It’s a small town with lots of tourists in the summer. If we want to add minutes to our trackfones we have to drive 20 miles each way over a pass in the winter to find service. The powers-that-be in our town have tried for years to get a tower here, but none of the cell phone companies will do it. (When I moved here I sure went into culture shock. ;-). )

  25. I traveled for 30 days in China flying to several of the largest cities and going back to very remote areas with rivers with mountains on each side like the Grand Canyon and I would see cell towers every place we went no matter how remote. I never noticed not having a signal on the Blackberry and was told by other Americans that China’s cell service was much better than the U.S. With that said, I use Verizon and I have very few problems with no signal no matter where I travel if I am close to a Interstate or large city, but usually poor coverage in rural areas.

  26. I traveled for 30 days in China flying to several of the largest cities and going back to very remote areas with rivers with mountains on each side like the Grand Canyon and I would see cell towers every place we went no matter how remote. I never noticed not having a signal on the Blackberry and was told by other Americans that China’s cell service was much better than the U.S. With that said, I use Verizon and I have very few problems with no signal no matter where I travel if I am close to a Interstate or large city, but usually poor coverage in rural areas.

  27. I live and work in Ghana, West Africa, in a remote part of northeast Ghana. We have 3 cell phone services in our small town; they are all national. Sometimes one or more of them go down; however, we can go all over the country and not get hit with roaming charges. There are cell phone dead spots in rural areas, but we generally do pretty well.

  28. I live and work in Ghana, West Africa, in a remote part of northeast Ghana. We have 3 cell phone services in our small town; they are all national. Sometimes one or more of them go down; however, we can go all over the country and not get hit with roaming charges. There are cell phone dead spots in rural areas, but we generally do pretty well.

  29. Jake, I have one word for you – Canada. To get a “new” cellphone, we must sign into a 3 year contract. According to the OECD, we have the highest cellphone and broadband rates in almost the whole world. Because of our population, coverage is limited to major highways and population centres. My carrier, Rogers, is one of the triopoly here but it drops calls at the airport of my city, fourth largest in Canada.
    If you are not careful, when driving on the major highway near the border along the St. Lawrence river, you will be picking up a US system unintentionally and incurring exhorbitant roaming charges. A telecommunication expert tells me it would be cheaper to have a US T-mobile account and roam here than my “local” service. How’s that?
    Roaming is sold by the minute in 15 minute packages (by the minute charges) and in Mexico, costs $3 per minute plus air time. For all calls, received or called, we pay for time and applicable long distance from our home base. The only local charge is in a major centre not home base. Messages are 15c although depending on the plan, you may get a number included (25, 50, small numbers).
    Employees of the telcos in their shops tell me they shut off their iPhone/smartphone data when going across the border. The normal charge is for 500mb with 10c per kb over unless you pay $20 more for 1gb or higher. This still doesn’t give us good nor fast coverage. Once you are into a basic data plan, your phone bill is likely to be $80-$100 per month minimum. How’s that? Canada now has only 64% cellphone penetration when 10 years ago it was a world leader.
    The telcos make profits in the millions per quarter increase. Our banks (who are highly regulated and touted as stable) are making quarterly profits in the billions of dollars. This is from service charges just like the telcos. Making money is the primary objective and forget service. So when you feel like venting a bit, just remember us here. Most of my friends and acquaintances are in their late 50s or early 60s and we don’t have or use cell phones most of the time. Its mainly the teens and 20 somethings and is a fashion statement. Those living on their own have old phones and get out of their contracts as soon as possible.

  30. Jake, I have one word for you – Canada. To get a “new” cellphone, we must sign into a 3 year contract. According to the OECD, we have the highest cellphone and broadband rates in almost the whole world. Because of our population, coverage is limited to major highways and population centres. My carrier, Rogers, is one of the triopoly here but it drops calls at the airport of my city, fourth largest in Canada.
    If you are not careful, when driving on the major highway near the border along the St. Lawrence river, you will be picking up a US system unintentionally and incurring exhorbitant roaming charges. A telecommunication expert tells me it would be cheaper to have a US T-mobile account and roam here than my “local” service. How’s that?
    Roaming is sold by the minute in 15 minute packages (by the minute charges) and in Mexico, costs $3 per minute plus air time. For all calls, received or called, we pay for time and applicable long distance from our home base. The only local charge is in a major centre not home base. Messages are 15c although depending on the plan, you may get a number included (25, 50, small numbers).
    Employees of the telcos in their shops tell me they shut off their iPhone/smartphone data when going across the border. The normal charge is for 500mb with 10c per kb over unless you pay $20 more for 1gb or higher. This still doesn’t give us good nor fast coverage. Once you are into a basic data plan, your phone bill is likely to be $80-$100 per month minimum. How’s that? Canada now has only 64% cellphone penetration when 10 years ago it was a world leader.
    The telcos make profits in the millions per quarter increase. Our banks (who are highly regulated and touted as stable) are making quarterly profits in the billions of dollars. This is from service charges just like the telcos. Making money is the primary objective and forget service. So when you feel like venting a bit, just remember us here. Most of my friends and acquaintances are in their late 50s or early 60s and we don’t have or use cell phones most of the time. Its mainly the teens and 20 somethings and is a fashion statement. Those living on their own have old phones and get out of their contracts as soon as possible.

Comments are closed.