3G coverage is the spine of mobile broadband. Without it, 3G speeds drop to a lethargic dialup level service (aka EDGE, GPRS or 1xRTT speeds).
As it stands, you can’t have mobile broadband without it. Naturally, that begets the question:
Who’s got the best 3G coverage?
There are four major 3G players right now who we’ll dance with:
While Sprint has a partnership with Clear for WiMAX that’s 4G coverage and is covered elsewhere. Also, most prepaid mobile broadband providers (with maybe the exception of Cricket) piggyback by reselling the service of one of these 3G providers.
So, in alphabetical order, let’s do a 3G coverage roundup:
AT&T 3G Coverage
AT&T’s Data Coverage map above can be misleading. On a national level, it lumps 2G speeds and 3G speeds in one big sea of blue. This wouldn’t be a problem if the difference in speeds weren’t like night and day (it’s like dialup vs. DSL). It’s most likely a tactic to counter Verizon’s advertisement attacks on their lacking 3G coverage. To get accurate representation, you’ll need to zoom to a city or street level.
"AT&T Coverage & Reliability is quite the ironic case.
While it’s quite undisputed that AT&T has the best mobile broadband global coverage, their domestic coverage in the United States may leave you wanting more.
AT&T doesn’t have the best 3G coverage. While its available in most cities, Verizon and Sprint have them beat".
How bad do they have them beat?
Verizon even started airing advertisements mocking AT&T’s 3G coverage. Hilarious (and true) stuff:
To drive the nail into the coffin, Verizon actually displays how much more mobile broadband coverage they have on their map. Does that mean you should drop any thoughts of AT&T for Verizon or Sprint?
Not just yet.
As a matter of fact, the most recent independent studies showed that AT&T has the fastest mobile broadband. There is, however, one big problem.
AT&T Has the Fastest 3G Network But It’s Also The Most Unreliable
Unfortunately one series of tests done by PC World in 13 cities showed that AT&T was the most unreliable of the 3 networks tested (Sprint, Verizon & AT&T).
"Our testers were able to make a connection [on AT&T’s network] at a reasonable, uninterrupted speed in only 68 percent of their tests.
Sprint’s 3G network delivered a solid connection in 90.5 percent of our 13-city tests.
Verizon demonstrated good reliability, too; the network was available at a reasonable and uninterrupted speed in 89.8 percent of our tests.
To sum up, don’t get AT&T if 3G coverage and reliability are high priorities for you.
While you can take the chance and be in the 68% reliability group, it’s a risk you have to accept the responsibility for.
To help make that decision, check AT&T’s 3G Coverage in your backyard using their AT&T’s Coverage Viewer (Click on Data, then plug in your address).
T-Mobile 3G Coverage
The burgundy used to illustrate 3G can blend with the magenta/pink used to show their EDGE/GRPS 2G coverage. The end result can be the illusion of more 3G coverage.
If AT&T 3G coverage is the pits, then T-Mobile 3G coverage must be the medieval dungeon right?
Not quite actually. While T-Mobile isn’t anywhere near the title of largest mobile broadband network, they’re not to be scoffed at.
As I said in the 2010 T-Mobile 3G coverage review:
In other words, T-Mobile 3G Coverage is reaches 70% as many people as the largest mobile broadband networks.
To their credit, they’re testing out 21 Mbps HSPA+ speeds in Philadelphia while working on upgrading their entire network to 7.2 Mbps.
How does 21 Mbps and 7.2 Mbps compare to everyone else?
AT&T currently holds the nation’s fastest 3G network title with an average of 1.4 Mbps (yes, that’s 1.4 and not 14). While AT&T is also working on a 7.2 Mbps upgrade, T-Mobile’s ahead of the game thanks to a smaller 3G network.
Wait, what’s that?
Yes. A smaller 3G network. All that glitters is not gold.
While AT&T doesn’t have great 3G coverage, T-Mobile’s is definitely worse. Thankfully, they may not suffer from the same reliability issues (studies have yet to confirm). It’s highly recommended to ‘vet’ their coverage before getting mobile broadband.
For now, great coverage is mostly in urban markets.
When looking at T-Mobile coverage for yourself, be mindful of the confusing color scheme they use.
Sprint 3G Coverage
"Sprint has 3G speeds on most interstates and just about everywhere in any major city. Despite their horrible churn (customer retention rate), Sprint has a pretty robust 3G network following the acquisition of Nextel some years back.
I’ve personally tested it over 1001 miles of highway at 70 miles per hour (New Orleans to Jacksonville and Tampa to Atlanta) and I had my connection get dropped once…for 15 minutes total. That’s solid. It’s even helped me out when I blew a tire at 80 miles/hr".
Sprint’s got a really bad reputation when it comes to cell phone service. Fortunately, that bad reputation doesn’t carry over into their mobile broadband network.
As a testimony to this, Amazon’s Kindle (an E-book reader) uses Sprint’s 3G network exclusively to connect to the online store.
With expected sales of $1 billion dollars in 2010, the Amazon Kindle is entirely dependent on Sprint’s mobile broadband network to make their digital book sales.
That speaks a large volume about their faith in the network’s 3G coverage, reliability and speed.
Does that mean Sprint’s 3G network is without fault?
But as mentioned before, they ranked as the most reliable mobile broadband network (even beating Verizon the ‘nation’s most reliable network’).
PCWorld’s 13-city 3G speed tests showed them to have a 90.5% reliability in establishing and maintaining connections (AT&T had 68% reliability rating).
If coverage and reliability are important to you, Sprint mobile broadband is a solid choice.
As always, confirm mobile broadband coverage in your area before taking the plunge. Be sure to click on ‘Data, Email and Multimedia’ before plugging in your street address for Sprint.
Verizon 3G Coverage
Verizon 3G Coverage makes AT&T look like a joke. While there’s a lot of press covering this, no one ever pits Verizon against Sprint, their real mobile broadband coverage competition.
"At one point, Verizon Wireless Coverage was being advertised as ‘the largest mobile broadband network’ based on how many millions of people it reached.
It was pretty obvious they were going after the claim that Sprint had made for quite some time.
To further push home that point, they even launched the only 3G coverage map by a carrier that compared their coverage to others (AT&T and Sprint). Since then, not only have those ‘largest network’ ads disappeared, but the comparative coverage of Sprint has been completely removed".
It wasn’t a battle they could win (against Sprint at least). With both companies reaching over 250 million people in the United States, it’s a pretty close call.
Nevertheless, both companies have robust networks.
While Sprint got a reliability rating of 90.5%, Verizon followed closely behind with 89.8% in PCWorld’s 3G tests in 2009. That’s less than a percent of a difference. If given scientific confidence intervals and the like, they may very well be the same.
So what does this mean for you?
Verizon, like Sprint, is a solid reliable bet for 3G mobile broadband coverage.
Of course, this is looking at the overall picture. There’s the small chance you fall in the 10% unreliable range. Like everything in life, nothing is a sure bet. To help protect against those times though, here’s Verizon’s 3G coverage map to help you check what things look like on the street level.
So Who’s Got The Best Mobile Coverage?
It’s a tie.
When looking at the nationwide level, it’s simply too close to call when it comes to Verizon and Sprint.
While the companies battled for the title a couple years ago, they’ve long since stopped trying. Instead, they’ve both turned focus to the next battle (i.e. WiMAX vs. LTE). 4G coverage will be the next battle.
With both sides gathering arms (Sprint’s already launched several WiMAX markets alongside their partner Clear while Verizon gears up for a late 2010 launch of LTE). Expect this to really pick up swing in 2011.
For now, your best bet will be either Sprint or Verizon.
While AT&T isn’t abysmal, they leave a lot to be desired. T-Mobile, unfortunately, is still playing catch-up. Don’t take your eye off of ’em. Like a game of ‘Red Light, Green Light’, they just might sneak up and cross the finish line while everyone looking elsewhere.
If you decide to get mobile broadband through one of the links below, I do make some money. Just some full disclosure. Besides, every broadband card is free or puts money in your pocket. Talk about win-win.