Nov 042011

A friend of ours made a mistake asking me about the cell phone provider we were with and whether I can recommend a particular carrier. That got me going.

“We are with Sprint. They have a good unlimited data/text family plan, but it’s still about $140/month for both of us, no limits on anything except on 1500 minutes to land lines monthly, but all cell phone to cell phone calls are free regardless of the network, and their free nights and weekends start at 7 PM.”

Best Carrier – No Such Thing

But then I gave a quick summary on carriers or at least the way we perceive them in Chicagoland according to my and my techie friends’ experiences:

Verizon is close to being the best carrier, as they have excellent coverage and good customer service, but they are also expensive, they use CDMA technology which is incompatible with most mobile networks in Europe and Asia, and have a data cap which matters if you travel overseas and download a lot respectively, but not for an average user.

AT&T has good phones and widest (not fastest) coverage, but my experience with its data network here in Chicago was very bad and they too don’t have unlimited data plans any more (hopefully Chicago residents can get some normal bandwidth on their new or upcoming HSPA+ and LTE network, which will happen “some time in the future”). Their iPhone is good for nothing if you’re travelling overseas due to overpriced roaming, unless you know how to jailbreak and unlock it to put a local SIM card in your phone (I’ve done it numerous times for this purpose).

Sprint has top of the line phones and unlimited data plans, liberal rooting/jailbreaking policy and its 4G phones get to be very fast in Chicago, but their 4G technology is very sensitive and you can have a difference between a good and bad 4G connection within a few yards. In addition, their phones, just like Verizon’s, use CDMA technology, so they are not good for world travelers.

T-Mobile uses GSM technology and it’s best for those who roam internationally and they have some excellent phones, fast HSPA+ network and very good prepaid plans, but aren’t that great with coverage.

Nobody can beat Cricket and Boost Mobile price-wise ($50 or less monthly for regular customers for unlimited everything), but mostly everybody beats them with quality. I also wonder how good (or how bad) their data bandwidth is.

If you’re not in Chicago and its suburbs don’t take all this as a law or even as a theory. It’s just my personal educated guess for how things (don’t) work here. These and other carriers may and sometimes do perform better or worse at different areas of the country based on their local circumstances.

Using Internet During a Call

Now about simultaneous data and voice: supposedly only 3G GSM carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile) can let you use mobile data (browse the internet or watch a YouTube video for example) while having a phone conversation. Higher end Sprint phones can do this when connected to 4G network (and/or a WiFi network), and Verizon phones can currently do this only when connected to a WiFi network.

I mentioned that this was the current situation summary and that it can and will change with time.

The answer to this was: “Lawd have mercy, now u have confused my poor brain with all of these variables…”
Hehe… Sometimes we don’t really have to explain it all, but one thing draws to another. In most cases it’s the matter of asking more good questions to pull the exact wishes and needs out of the person you’re trying to help. When talking to a common user (as opposed to a fellow geek), never hesitate to answer a question with another question to get a clear picture of what their needs are, so you don’t overwhelm the person with your answers and waste your energy.

More reading about wireless technology and standards for curious minds:

Comparison of Wireless Data Standards (Wikipedia)

AT&T, Verizon, LTE, HSPA+, EV-DO, 4G, GSM, CDMA, iPhone oh my!

And if you don’t know what to think of all these data standards and which one to root for, don’t get discouraged. Here is an article that nailed it:
WiMAX vs. LTE vs. HSPA+: who cares who wins?

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