Choosing a cell phone carrier is not as simple as it first seems. You have to consider the different merits of the available plans, the cost, the geographic coverage, the actual performance of the service and even how useful the carrier's customer service is. And this is before you even look at which phones are offered by each carrier.
We've split our coverage of cell phone plans into two reports. This report compares traditional cell phone plans, which usually require a two-year contract. You may also want to consider a pay-as-you-go prepaid wireless plan. Once considered a last resort for people with bad credit, prepaid wireless plans have evolved into a good option for anybody, experts say, even if you want a smartphone. See our report on prepaid cell phone plans for more information.
It's not easy to compare cell phone plans and service. You can't, for example, test the same cell phone in the same location using Verizon and AT&T. That's because there are two different network technologies at work. A mobile phone made to work on Verizon's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network will not operate on AT&T's GSM (Global System for Mobile) network. Even if you could use the same phone to test multiple wireless plans, you'd only have results for one particular location; and, as you probably know, you could walk 500 feet away, try the test again and get different results.
PC World and Gizmodo.com do manage to conduct well-designed tests of 3G speeds. PC World, Computerworld and Laptop Magazine also conduct 4G tests. Smaller iPhone-centric showdowns at Wired and Engadget.com debate whether AT&T or Verizon Wireless works better with the iPhone. Large customer surveys at ConsumerReports.org, J.D. Power and Associates and PCMag.com, each with over 10,000 respondents, provide an extensive view of how cell phone carriers are really performing both nationally and regionally. We scoured all of these sources and more to recommend the best cell phone plans for this report.