There's really no such thing as a 'best' mobile provider

As with all things tech, there are rabidly loyal fans of each of the four major mobile network providers, and strong opinions on all sides about which is the “best.” While Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile each have their pros and cons, it’s virtually impossible to declare one the winner.

Late last month, PCWorld's sister site TechHive published results of its own nationwide study. After bouncing around the country testing the speed and reliability of the mobile networks from city to city, TechHive declared that AT&T takes the crown this year as the fastest mobile network provider. Kudos to AT&T, but the victory has little impact in the real world.

The "best" mobile service varies
from place to place.

There is obviously something to be said for choosing a mobile provider with fast, reliable 4G/LTE service. The reality, though, is that the most important benefits and pitfalls of a particular provider are subjective, and depend on where you intend to use the service. The fastest network in the nation is less important than the fastest network where you live and work and plan to use the service.

I experienced that reality first hand when I moved a year and a half ago. I had been a devoted, long time AT&T customer. There were a handful of known “dead zones” in the area—small pockets where there was no AT&T signal and calls would drop—but I knew where they were, and how to avoid them. I could live with that.

When I moved five miles due south from my previous residence, I found that I had virtually no AT&T signal in my new house. That’s unacceptable. I work from home, and we don’t have any landline service, so my family depends on reliable mobile service to communicate. So, I switched to Verizon.

Problem solved. Of course, now I can’t use voice and data simultaneously (a limitation of the CDMA technology Verizon uses), but at least I when I do each separately I have a good, strong signal—as long as I stay home.

My family took a cross-country road trip last summer—sort of my own real-world investigation along the lines of the TechHive study. What I found is that Verizon 4G/LTE was great on major highways and populated areas; but across vast areas of Idaho, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, it was almost impossible to find a signal at all.

The moral of the story is this: Verizon is the best mobile network provider for me where I spend most of my time and do most of my work. But if I lived in Custer, South Dakota, I might need to switch to AT&T, or Sprint, or T-Mobile, because Verizon wasn’t cutting it.

It’s a notable achievement for AT&T to come out on top as the fastest mobile network, but that will be little consolation if you live in one of the many dead zones where AT&T apparently has no network.

Next time your wireless contract is up and you’re in the market for mobile service, do a little homework. Try to find friends, neighbors, and co-workers who use different mobile providers than you, so you can check out how strong the signal is where you live and work. Ask for input about the provider and its support and customer service.

If you move or switch jobs, that wireless service you’ve been happy with might instantly become a source of constant frustration. The simple fact is there is no “best” mobile provider, just the best for you. And the best for you is subject to change depending on where you need to use it.

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