How to decide which wireless carrier is best

Q: I’m trying to decide which cellular network to use and not sure how much of the marketing hype about the one percent difference is real. Any suggestions on how to figure out which network is best for me?

A: As smartphone usage increases, figuring out which cellular network is best suited for your needs has become as important as, if not more important than, choosing the right mobile device.

The marketing claims can be very confusing with claims such as “fastest,” “most dependable,” “most popular,” “most advanced,” “most reliable,” “unlimited,” “next generation” and more, which everyone wants from his wireless provider.

Manipulating the data

Creating impressive marketing claims based on a favorable interpretation of a specific data set is not exclusive to the wireless carriers, but they’ve been taking it to new heights.

Many of the claims that these companies make are hard to prove or disprove, or are based on scenarios that may mean absolutely nothing to you depending upon where you live and work.

Sprint’s campaign claiming that there is only a 1 percent difference in reliability between the major networks is based on their interpretation of the data generated by recent Nielson drive test data for average network reliability (voice and data) in the top 106 markets.

While it can be argued that this claim is pretty vague, the term “network reliability” should not be confused with network coverage or network speed.


Why you should ignore the hype

No matter how good the overall rating for any carrier in any specific measurement may be, there’s a very important thing to keep in mind in every case: YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

Where you live, work and travel will have the biggest impact on which carrier or carriers offer the best option for your specific needs. Someone who travels a lot or lives in a rural area will have very different needs than someone living and working in a high-population urban area.

In virtually every third-party measurement of voice and data services, the city you live in is one of the biggest factors for which networks provide the best overall performance.


Real customer measurements

Every wireless carrier publishes a coverage map, generally available on its website, but I wouldn’t rely on them — many complaints on the internet challenge the accuracy of these maps when you drill down to street level.

A number of third-party resources provide coverage maps based on data reported by actual users (usually via an app) who live and work in your area.

The Root Metrics interactive coverage map allows you to zoom down to street level to review coverage reports on each major carrier as well as by service type (voice versus data).

Both OpenSignal and Sensorly offer user-generated map data based on your location and carrier, with the option to show the differences between 4G service and slower 2G/3G coverage. You can also download their apps if you’d like to contribute data yourself.

Each of these resources collect data in various ways so using all three should help you better understand which carrier performs the best for the areas you’ll frequent.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or on Twitter.


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