Finding the "best" mobile service provider might be an abstract, theoretical concept, but picking the carrier that is right for you shouldn't be too difficult.
For years I've dreaded this question – who's the best cellular operator for me? I get asked that all the time, and the answer has proved tough for a number of reasons. First, there are actually lots of carriers out there, from the big four national leaders (AT&T, Sprint,T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless) to hundreds of smaller, regional operators and a few mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) targeting specific demographics.
After much thought on this subject, though, I've concluded that there will be three key elements in making your decision, no matter which carrier you select:
- Cost: I remain deeply troubled that almost all cellular pricing plans involve picking a certain number of minutes per month, in advance, even though you have no idea how many you'll actually use, and your usage will undoubtedly vary from month to month. The carriers will attempt to scare you into buying way more minutes than you'll really need via significant per-minute overage charges that far exceed their costs. I'm not sure why we continue to put up with this tyranny (which is now so common as to have become almost cultural and unworthy of even a second thought) – except that we have little choice. AT&T allows the rollover of unused minutes from month to month and might be worth a look if your usage is highly variable. But the cost for voice service in only one element – you also need to consider the cost of a data plan. I always recommend purchasing unlimited service here because you have zero control over how many bytes you'll actually be dealing with each month. Finally, there are lots of add-ons available, like unlimited text messaging and sharing of photos, but I recommend avoiding these for business use -- go with the unlimited plan and use email in place of IM.
- Coverage: This element is critical but impossible to judge from the maps that the carriers provide on their websites. Radio propagation is a very nonlinear phenomenon, and dropouts do occur even in areas with otherwise good coverage. Coverage maps also say nothing about how much traffic is likely in a given spot at a given time of day, and this will especially determine effective data throughput – which, needless to say, can be quite variable. Make sure you get a money-back guarantee for the eventuality of service being unavailable in key locations.
- Service mix: Ultimately, you'll need to decide on a bottom-line price for both voice and data. Voice is fairly commoditized and pretty competitive among carriers, but data plans vary widely. Check the technology -- there's been a lot of buzz about the iPhone, for example, using EDGE in place of the faster HSPA. Even though data rates vary widely no matter what technology you use, I'd always get the fastest service available, since it won't run at the peak speed quoted but will nevertheless be faster than an alternative with lower specs.
Note that there is one other element in picking a plan – how you use your device. If you work for a company and are reimbursed by your employer for the business use of your phone, then you may have to pick a particular carrier just for that reason. I think, by the way, that we're eventually going to move to phones provided by the organization, and I'll cover that topic in more detail in an upcoming column.
If you work for a larger enterprise, there's a very good chance that you already have an account representative assigned to you by all of the carriers in your geographic area. There's no need to call – they know who you are, and they have a broad range of possibilities for you, all customized to your specific needs. And they really, really want your business, so the standard pricing and service plans are of little consequence. It's a good idea to sit down with both your rep and his company's competitors every six months or so, just to hear about what's new and to consider any items of interest for the next round of purchasing. You may decide to go with multiple carriers, especially in different parts of the country. In general, though, I recommend sticking with one carrier, both for the volume benefits and for the relative simplicity inherent in having less to think about.
All of the major carriers and, I'm sure, most of the smaller players can do a very good job if you make your requirements and expectations clear. But with both plans and equipment changing regularly, it pays to keep your finger on the pulse of the cellular industry.
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at email@example.com.