Which wireless carrier is best for you? Verizon, probably, but check for yourself

rootmetrics att 2h 2014 coverage map
Credit: Rootmetrics

Verizon unquestionably is the best wireless carrier, according to a comprehensive nationwide study of the service provided by the top four U.S. wireless providers during the second half of 2014.

That doesn’t mean that it’s the right choice for you. But it's a good starting point to help you choose the right wireless carrier, with a little hand-holding.

That’s because the national study, released Tuesday by RootMetrics, doesn’t dive into the specifics for where you live. What it does tell us, however, was which carrier was best in terms of call quality, data download speed, and other metrics. The data is broken down nationally, on a statewide basis, and in tested metro areas.

While you can assess the report for yourself, you can also use RootMetrics’ own coverage map or smartphone apps to drill down further and determine whether the carrier you think is best has actually been proven itself to be so.

rootmetrics carrier report 2h 2014 Rootmetrics

Verizon was the clear overall winner in RootMetrics’ tests for the second half of 2014.

RootMetrics tries to test wireless networks from your perspective: placing automated, repeated calls from cars travelling on roads, from fixed locations, at airports, even indoors. All told, the study conducted 5.7 million samples during the second half, the company said.

Overall, Verizon was the clear winner on network reliability, network speed, data performance, and call performance, although AT&T was a close second. From an overall, nationwide perspective, AT&T was second, followed by Sprint and then T-Mobile.

The only real outlier was text performance: There, AT&T finished first, followed by Sprint, Verizon and then T-Mobile. That’s a slight change from the company's survey from the first half of 2014, when Sprint finished last, and T-Mobile, third.

rootmetrics carrier report year over year Rootmetrics

RootMetrics found that, in general, most carriers fared just as well in the second half of 2014 as the first.

The problem with the RootMetrics report is that it doesn’t really reveal which carrier performed best in say, Atlanta, as opposed to Seattle. Those specifics are presumably being sold directly to the carriers themselves. But the report offers some general conclusions that might help when picking a carrier:

Verizon is best at the state level. Providing wireless coverage in dense cities while avoiding network congestion is one challenge; supplying a wireless signal across miles of empty prairie is quite another. Verizon won 38 states outright, tying in 10 others. If you subdivide those states by network reliability and speed; data, text, and call performance; and an overall ranking; Verizon won 257 out of those 300 categories.

T-Mobile’s strengths are in metro areas. No real secret here, if you’re a T-Mobile subscriber. T-Mobile’s service works fairly reliably in metro areas, and the company even topped one state ranking (Rhode Island) in terms of data speed. (T-Mobile also demonstrated the fastest median upload speed from any network.) But T-Mobile is converting its 3G antennas to LTE technology, and the transition may have hurt T-Mobile in overall testing, RootMetrics speculated. T-Mobile slipped from third to fourth because of call performance.

“Now that T-Mobile has firmly established its LTE rollout at the metro level, we anticipate that improved performance could start to push out beyond the urban areas and transitory reliability issues related to the upgrade process could also improve,” RootMetrics wrote.

Overall, however, Verizon was still the best overall carrier in 113 of the 125 metro markets that RootMetrics tested. AT&T was second, with 51.

Rising tides lifted all boats. RootMetrics also called out Sprint’s improvement at the state level as the other big story, especially in network reliability. But metrics for all carriers improved, especially in the hotly contested metro areas, RootMetrics found.

What’s best for you?

Most consumers don’t pay attention to coverage maps, assuming their service should work just about anywhere. (After all, it’s 2015, right?) That’s still not true, however. 

rootmetrics san francisco Rootmetrics

It’s worth drilling down into your city or region to see what networks succeed—or fail. Note how Sprint’s network doesn’t quite stretch to cover all of San Francisco. (Black spots indicate poor or non-existent coverage.)

Fortunately, there’s a solution. RootMetrics provides a nationwide, zoomable coverage map, where you can assess each network from a nationwide perspective or zoom right down to where you live. There’s one caveat, though: the RootMetrics coverage map offers a subset of RootMetrics’ nationwide results. So you’ll be able to see which carrier offers good call performance in a given area, but not what the average download speed will be.

RootMetrics also offers an app for both iOS and Android that will allow you to drill down and either test your network yourself, right where you are, or see results that other users have compiled. (Note: your results will be anonymously passed along to RootMetrics.) Alternatives include OpenSignal, which supplies similar information.

With carriers like T-Mobile offering to buy you out of your contract, now, you might benefit from switching from Verizon’s generally pricier service to something that’s a bit less expensive. And if you’ve been a customer of a particular carrier for years (“only Sprint works out here”) you might be unaware that you now have additional options. 

So here’s what you should do: If you haven’t already, check out the coverage maps above to see whether you can actually switch, without losing signal on the highway or while you're on that fishing trip you’ve planned for the spring. Then figure out what you’re paying in wireless costs, and whether another carrier offers a better deal, or freebies. And if they do—call your wireless carrier and see if they’ll talk you out of a move with a discount. We’ve proven negotiating discounts already works with companies like Comcast, and there’s every reason to give it a try with your wireless carrier as well. 

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