Editor’s Note: Since publishing this article, we have created an infographic that summarizes these five tips in an easy-to-reference format. You can find the infographic here or at the end of this blog post.
Given what I do for a living, there is one question I get asked by a lot by friends, family and even casual acquaintances: what mobile operator should I pick? Invariably I wind up giving them a very long and ultimately disappointing answer. They want me to name one of the big four U.S. operators and be done with it, but what they get is me hemming and hawing about urban coverage versus rural, raw speed versus reliability and data buckets versus unlimited plans.
I’m not trying to be difficult, but the fact of the matter is there is no one operator or one service plan that is ideal for all people. Finding your operator match depends on a bevy of different considerations, from where you live and how you go about your day to how you typically use your phone. The operator with the highest national rankings in coverage and speed might have a huge dead zone smack in the middle of your neighborhood. That operator may be the best for most of the country, but it’s certainly not the best for you.
While I can’t tell you who’s the best, I can help you figure it out for yourself. The following is a list of five big considerations you should weigh when picking a service provider or plan no matter where you happen to live. They’re a little bit more nuanced than “who’s the fastest?” or “who’s the cheapest?” But most of what you need to know can be found in your own noggin. The rest you can look up using OpenSignal’s app and web tools.
The network you use is really quite small
Coverage seems like a no-brainer when picking an operator: The bigger the coverage map the more consistent and reliable your service will be. That’s true if you’re spending equal time in every part of your operators mobile footprint, but most of us aren’t roving news correspondents or traveling encyclopedia salesmen. Chances are there are only a handful of places where you do the majority of mobile calling and surfing – work, home, the commute in between and areas you spend your free time. The optimal network for you will be the network that provides a consistent signal in those locations.
Some operators specialize in metro coverage, so if you’re an urban dweller who rarely steps outside of the city limits, one of these operators might provide you the same or even better quality of service than an operator with a massive national footprint. There are also regional and rural operators – particularly in the U.S. – that do a much better job of covering their own little nooks of the country than even the farthest reaching nationwide provides. Conversely, there are operators that do a better job covering different parts of the urban landscape better than others, for instance public transit routes or train stations.
OpenSignal’s coverage map of metropolitan Paris
The important thing about coverage isn’t the overall map, but the very specific map you use on a daily basis. If you happen to be a road warrior flitting between cities on a regular basis, then a nationwide operator with the biggest network footprint is ideal for you. But for everyone else, it makes sense to map the 10 or 20 places you spend the majority of your time, and see how the different operators in those areas stack up. Luckily OpenSignal has some tools to help. You can use OpenSignal’s app (available on Android and iOS) to map out each individual operator’s signal strength on different networks in a particular block or neighborhood. You can also interact with OpenSignal’s maps on the website.
3G is often as important as 4G
The operator with the fastest 4G service will deliver the best mobile data experience, right? Not necessarily. First of all think of the device you’re connecting here. Your smartphone isn’t your home network or a 4K smart TV. Once you get past 10 Mbps, chances are you aren’t going to notice any difference in performance except when dealing with the most bandwidth intensive of video streaming apps. If you’re picking between three or four providers all averaging 12 Mbps or better, then there are other things you should be weighing besides raw speed.
What’s most important is the reliability and consistency of your mobile broadband connection, and let’s face it, no operator can provide an LTE signal 100 percent of the time. Chances are you’re going to be spending a good deal of time surfing on your operator’s 3G or even 2G network, especially if you live in a country or area without decent 4G penetration. Looking at an operator’s data performance across all of its networks could give you a much better idea of what your mobile internet experience will be like day to day.
The problem is that cross-network average can be a bit hard to track down because it’s a statistic operators don’t often reveal. As OpenSignal publishes more regional reports (for instance our recent State of the Mobile Network: Brazil report), we’ve started tracking 3G speeds separately from 4G speeds. You can also use the advanced settings in the OpenSignal app to see the average performance of a particular operator across all of its networks or compare 3G versus 4G speeds in specific neighborhoods. In places like the U.S., GSM operators’ 3G networks are usually much faster than CDMA operators’ 3G counterparts, which can make up for spotty LTE coverage.
Data plan overkill
Ask yourself “Do I really need that 10 GB-per-month plan?” If you’re the typical smartphone user, the answer will almost always be no. According to Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, the average smartphone user in North America consumed 3.8 GBs per month in 2015. In Western Europe, the number was 2 GBs, and the average across the Asia Pacific region was even lower, 1 GB.
Operators will always try to sell their customers more data than they need, and most consumers usually overestimate the amount of data they will consume. The result is that a lot of data in these plans goes to waste each month. Before picking a new data plan, you should look back at a few of your old bills to see how much data you actually suck up each month. You might find that the operator with the cheapest big-bucket plan doesn’t offer the cheapest price for the particular way you use the mobile internet.
Plan prices aren’t the only things that matter though. It’s just as important to check how and how much your operator charges when you exceed your monthly maximum. Those overage fee structures vary considerably. One operator may just charge you a $1 for an additional increment of 100 MBs, while another will insist you buy a whole gigabyte for $20. Everybody exceeds their monthly data allotments on occasion, and that’s fine. Just make sure you’re not being gouged every time you do.
The right to roam free (or at least cheaply)
If you spend any amount of time outside of your home country’s borders, it’s worth checking on your perspective operator’s roaming policies. Using your smartphone for just a few days overseas can cost you the same as several months of service at home if you’re not careful. The EU has started cracking down on the worst roaming fee abuses within its borders, but it won’t be until 2017 that most roaming fees go away entirely. In the interim, though, many operators in Europe and further abroad have started singling themselves out with more reasonable programs.
For instance, I know several people in the U.K. that use 3 for the sole reason that it has eliminated roaming surcharges in 14 countries. In the U.S., T-Mobile offers a bare-bones data service and free texting to its customers roaming in most countries. Other U.S. operators have started eliminating or reducing fees for customers traveling in bordering Mexico and Canada.
Is there an MVNO for you?
We’re in the golden age of the mobile virtual network operator: more than 1000 have popped up around the world, many of them offering prices far cheaper than their major operator counterparts. An MVNO is essentially a mobile operator that doesn’t own or run an actual network. Instead these virtual providers buy voice and data capacity from an established network operator.
In July I wrote a primer on this blog about the advantages and disadvantages of MVNOs, but in short, MVNOs differentiate themselves not just on price but in the way they package the voice and data we consume. For instance some MVNOs are focused on hard-core data users that rarely make phone calls. Others may offer inexpensive international calling features for expats. There are even some that try to improve upon the incumbent operators services by offering access to multiple networks or Wi-Fi hotspots, for instance Google’s new MVNO experiment Project Fi.
So once you’ve done your research and found the operator with the right network for you, you should check out that operators’ MVNOs. They might be able to offer you the same network but with a service plan that’s a much better fit for your specific mobile needs or budget.