Sunday, September 25, 2011

iPhone 5 - AT&T, Sprint and Verizon

Even as Verizon discounts its iPhone 4 in order to draw down inventory ahead of the iPhone 5 and Sprint can barely manage to bite its lip with excitement regarding its impending iPhone 5 addition, original iPhone carrier AT&T remains publicly indifferent. Most notable is that even as AT&T serves up discounts this week on dozens of smartphones from rivals like Samsung and HTC, not a penny has been shaved off the price of its iPhone 4. This kind of indifference has come to be expected from AT&T customers, who watched the carrier respond to its impending loss of iPhone exclusivity by eliminating popular unlimited data plans and not lifting a finger to compete with the Verizon iPhone 4 which arrived in the spring. That leaves AT&T iPhone customers in the position of going carrier-shopping with the launch of the iPhone 5 (but not to T-Mobile, which admits it won’t have the iPhone this year), with various factors marking the pros and cons of doing so. For those iPhone 5 buyers who are looking at marking the occasion by moving to Verizon or Sprint, here’s a look the ups and downs of it…

The first factor is a financial one. Verizon’s plans cost roughly the same as that of AT&T, while Sprint offers pricing which is cheaper for most users in most instances. However, any AT&T customer who bought their last iPhone less than two years ago is looking at having to pay off the remaining portion of their early termination fee if they’re going to change carriers at the iPhone 5 launch. There are actually three groups here. The first are those whose current iPhone is more than two years old and are already post-contract: they can change carriers without regard for cost. The second are those who are eligible for upgrade pricing (typically twelve or eighteen months after purchase) but aren’t yet out of their contract: it’s cheaper for them to remain with AT&T because the iPhone 5 will cost the same no matter who they get it from, and leaving AT&T will require an ETF payment. The third group faces a different fate: those who aren’t yet upgrade-eligible will find themselves facing a $200 surcharge for an AT&T iPhone 5, and may come out ahead by buying a Verizon or Sprint iPhone 5 at standard pricing and using the savings to pay off their AT&T ETF…

Network quality is a significant factor but one which is tricky to quantify on a local level. For those who aren’t globe trotters, less important are national network quality rankings and more important are signal strength at ones home, place or work, favorite hangouts, and routes in between. A longtime AT&T iPhone user could be living in the middle of a Verizon dead spot and not know it; switching to a Verizon iPhone 5 could then become a nightmare. The way around this is to invite friends with Sprint and Verizon phones to come visit, and then check their reception while they’re over.

Network speed is another beast entirely. Both Verizon and AT&T have embarked on 4G LTE nationwide networks, but Verizon is much further along in that regard; neither one is anywhere close to being nationwide as of yet. The iPhone 5 may or may not even support 4G LTE, which won’t be confirmed until the device launches. Sprint offers a 4G network which is nationwide, but it’s significantly slower than the 4G LTE being promised by the other two carriers. It’s not yet known whether the iPhone 5 will support Sprint’s 4G, either.

Neither Verizon nor AT&T is offering unlimited data plans to new customers. Sprint is doing so, but reserves the right to revoke it down the road. Longtime AT&T iPhone users are still on an unlimited data plan if they’ve so chosen, and would lose this plan if they move to a Verizon iPhone 5. Then again, they could eventually lose the plan if AT&T revokes it later. Unlimited data plans mean you can surf the web as much as you like; those on limited data plans are in store for sizable overage fees if they go past their monthly limit. Here’s more on the iPhone 5

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