Saturday, April 21, 2012

AT&T or Verizon: Which offers the best deal on 4G iPad data?

AT&T or Verizon: Which offers the best deal on 4G iPad data?

Marguerite Reardon

In this Ask Maggie, I help a reader determine which LTE-enabled iPad to buy. I also offer some guidance to a Sprint customer wondering about the future of Sprint's WiMax network.

The new LTE-enabled iPad has turned out to be a data hog. So which carrier is best for getting the most bang for your buck?

In this edition of Ask Maggie I explain why the new LTE-enabled iPad eats through so much data. And I help a reader figure which carrier -- AT&T or Verizon -- will give him the most data usage for the least amount of money. I also offer some advice to a Sprint WiMax subscriber who is thinking about upgrading to a new Sprint 4G LTE device.

AT&T or Verizon LTE iPad?

Hello Maggie,
I saw one of your articles about 4G definitions and thought I would see if you had a solution to a question I can't answer. I am trying to decide whether to purchase a new iPad using Verizon Wireless or AT&T cellular service. I understand that the 4G LTE service from both carriers causes users to consume much more data on their plans for a combination of technical and behavioral reasons.

I have not been able to find anything on Web blogs or elsewhere, however, about any difference in data consumption for AT&T's HSPA+ (faux 4G) relative to Verizon's 3G. This could be very important factor in determining which version of the iPad to purchase, because if I decide to turn off 4G LTE to conserve data usage, I would like to know if the AT&T 4G HSPA+ eats up more data than Verizon's 3G for an equivalent amount of Web surfing, video downloading, etc.

I recognize that the HSPA+ is faster, but given the small difference in speed between it and 3G, I am much more concerned about the cost for the amount of data that I will use. We tried to test this with several friends' new iPads, and it appeared that the AT&T HSPA+ (faux 4G) used more data that the Verizon 3G for the same amount of Web surfing when we checked cellular data usage on the accounts on each machine. But I would really appreciate knowing if there is any good, credible evidence to help in making my decision.


Dear Robert,
You are right about there being technical and behavioral reasons why people are consuming so much more data on their new 4G LTE iPads. Devices using a faster 4G LTE network will download bits faster than devices using a 3G network. According to Verizon's data calculator, a 3G video stream downloads at 250 Megabytes per hour compared with a device on a 4G network that downloads 350MB/hr. So this is one factor that may be contributing to people using more data than they had expected on their new LTE-enabled iPads.

But the real reason why these 4G iPad users are busting through their data plans is simply because a faster network means they can do more with their tablets. It's like when you went from dial-up Internet connectivity at home to a broadband connection. On dial-up all you likely did was check e-mail and a few Web sites. When you got broadband, you went to a lot more Web sites that had more graphics and used Flash. You started streaming music and video. You uploaded and downloaded pictures. These activities inherently require more bandwidth than simply checking e-mail. And they simply weren't possible on the dial-up connection because it was too slow.

So when you got the faster connection, you used more data. It wasn't the connection per se that consumed more data, it was your behavior that resulted in you consuming more data on a network that was capable of handling more advanced content.

That's what is happening with 4G LTE wireless now. Users are going from a dial-up-like experience to a broadband experience. And they are happy to finally get access to the wireless Internet superhighway.

The other reason why they are using so much more data is because the iPad in particular has such a beautiful screen -- why would you want to watch anything but high-definition quality video on it? And now that the network is capable of delivering HD video without a ton of buffering, people are using it to stream HD movies and TV shows, even when they're not in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

This can be a problem on a cellular network where data usage is metered because HD video consumes much more bandwidth than standard-definition video. How much more? According to Verizon's data estimator, 30 minutes of HD video per day would use 30GB of data per month. By contrast, 30 minutes a day of SD video would use 9.52GB of data per month.

Is AT&T's HSPA+ more of a hog than Verizon's EV-DO?
But your question isn't so much about why people are busting through their data plans as much as you want to know whether AT&T's HSPA+ network will eat through data faster than Verizon's 3G EV-DO network. Right? In general, a faster network will consume data at a faster data rate. So in theory the HSPA+ network may consume slightly more data when engaging in the same activity. (As you know from reading my previous column, I really consider AT&T's HSPA+ 3G.)

As you mentioned in your test with your friend's iPad, there may be a difference in data usage between an AT&T HSPA+ iPad and a Verizon EV-DO iPad. But I'm not sure how big that difference really is. HSPA+ is a faster network, so certain content, such as video, may download at a higher bit-rate. For other applications, it may not matter at all. The real question is whether the faster network, if it's really noticeably any faster, compels you to stream more audio or visit more Web sites or do more of whatever it is you do on your iPad. That is what will drive up your data usage.

I think if you're interested in getting a 4G iPad and don't want to go over your data plan, you need to think about when and how you will use the device. Will you be using 4G LTE only occasionally to fill in for when you can't find a Wi-Fi hotspot? Or do you plan on using your new iPad everyday on your hour-long commute to work?

Once you know how often you will need to access the 4G LTE network, then you can find the data plan that is best suited to your needs at the lowest price. And that would be the plan I'd go with.

Right now, AT&T and Verizon have some significant price differences at the low-end of their pricing structure. Very light data users, could get the $15 plan with only 250MB from AT&T. But keep in mind that 250MB of data is not much, especially for a device like an iPad that is made for downloading pictures and streaming video. While it sounds like a great deal, users on this plan will have to really make certain they are very light data users since 25 minutes a day of Web surfing could use up to 750MB of data in a month, according to Verizon's data calculator.

By contrast, Verizon offers a plan for just $5 more a month ($20) that gives subscribers 1GB of data per month. This plan might also appeal to light data users.

If you're a moderate data user, then AT&T has the better deal. For $30 a month, AT&T offers 3GB of data per month. For the exact same price, Verizon offers only 2GB a month.

For heavier data users, there's really no difference in price. AT&T and Verizon each offer a $50 a month plan that gives subscribers 5GB of data. For really heavy data users, Verizon offers a 10GB plan for $80 a month.

If you're really concerned about exceeding your data plan, I'd suggest using Wi-Fi as much as possible. You can also turn off 4G to save on data. But I don't think there is much of a difference between how much data AT&T's HSPA+ network uses versus Verizon's EV-DO network to make much of a difference. I think it's much more important to find a plan that best fits your needs. I'd decide between AT&T and Verizon based on those costs rather than their 3G network technology.

Good luck with your decision. And I hope you enjoy your new iPad!

Should I upgrade from WiMax to LTE yet on Sprint? Or is it still too early?

Dear Maggie,
I have the original HTC Evo 4G smartphones from Sprint. My contract ends on May 4, 2012. The phone was definitely groundbreaking when it came out, but now it's barely hanging on to life.

I keep hearing that Sprint is abandoning its WiMax network, and it is building a new LTE network. Even if I buy the new HTC Evo 4G LTE, which was announced a week or so ago, I really don't want to end up in the same situation I was in when I bought my original Evo. Sprint charged all of its buyers the $10 per month premium data fee even when they didn't live in a 4G market. I live in Los Angeles, and I've heard no concrete date as to when LA will get Sprint LTE service. But it has WiMax now.

The way I look at it I have 2 choices:

1. I could tough it out with my current phone until God knows when. And once LTE is rolled out in LA, I could buy an LTE phone then.

2. If I can't wait for a new phone, I could buy the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch, which uses the 4G WiMax network operated by Clearwire. This option would require me to sell my Samsung online if I decide I want one of the newer LTE devices when they are released and the network is active in my area.

What would Maggie do?

Upgrade Eligible

Dear Upgrade Eligible,
This is a tough question. I can tell from your message how frustrated you are. And who could blame you? Sprint only started offering a 4G WiMax handset two years ago. And now it looks like the carrier is starting from scratch with new handsets and a new network.

Even though Sprint will continue to offer WiMax service for customers who already own a WiMax handset, it won't be introducing new ones in the future. From now on, Sprint's 4G devices will all use LTE. And it's already announced the first two for the pipeline: the HTC Evo 4G LTE and the LG Viper. Both should be on sale in May.

Sprint's plan to move to LTE has been a long time coming. The company took a gamble when it committed to using WiMax back in 2007. When it launched the network in 2008 and teamed up with Clearwire, it was the first wireless operator to offer 4G service. It went with WiMax because the technology was more advanced than LTE at that point in time. And Sprint, already the No. 3 wireless operator in the U.S., didn't want to wait.

"WiMax was tried-and-true tested technology at the time we made the choice," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said two years ago at an industry event. "And we thought we could go with that for 4G now or wait for another technology that would be ready later. And we couldn't wait."

It became clear almost immediately after Sprint had launched its WiMax service that the rest of the world's largest telcos would be using LTE instead. And while it was alright for Sprint to be a maverick for a little while, it wasn't sustainable long term. The main reason is that if the rest of the world's operators are using LTE for 4G service, then there would be a cheaper, more efficient, and more innovative ecosystem for LTE as compared with WiMax. In other words, Sprint would never be able to afford to pay handset makers to build WiMax devices just for its network. And it would never be able to afford to provide incentives to infrastructure providers to build equipment just for its network.

Clearwire, Sprint's partner who has built the WiMax network, also recognizes this fact. And that's the company has plans to layer an LTE network on top of the WiMax network it is currently building. The plan is to eventually migrate users from the WiMax network to LTE. Of course, the problem with this migration is that older WiMax devices won't operate with the LTE network, so eventually those devices will be phased out entirely.

The bottom line here is that LTE was always going to have to be a part of Sprint's roadmap. But the one major twist in this story is that Sprint is now building its own LTE network. Instead of waiting for Clearwire to make its transition to LTE, Sprint has decided to use excess spectrum it owns and build its own LTE network. The reason Sprint is so anxious to move to LTE is that it's losing ground in the 4G battle to Verizon Wireless, which has the largest and fastest 4G LTE network available, and AT&T, which is just now building its network.

Unfortunately for Sprint customers, the transition to LTE is messy and confusing. For one, the company will soon be selling devices that support two different 4G networks. (As if 4G wasn't already confusing for wireless consumers.) In an effort to be more clear about which device operates on which network, Sprint is indicating on its Website which 4G network each device supports. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S 4G says 4G WiMax. And the new HTC Evo is the HTC Evo 4G LTE.

Sadly, this will require customers to know more than they'd probably like to know about the difference between these 4G networks. I can only imagine the many different ways a sales associate in a store or on the phone can bungle questions from current and potential customers on this issue.

To get back to your original question, what should you do? As I said before it's a really tough question. The reality is that even though the 4G WiMax network is being phased out and at some point will cease to exist, today its footprint is much larger than Sprint's non-existent LTE network.

Sprint now offers 4G WiMax service in about 77 markets. By contrast, Sprint's LTE network will be up and running in only six larger markets by June. This includes Kansas City, Mo., Baltimore, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta and Houston. As you point out in your message, Los Angeles was not mentioned as one of the first six. And it's hard to say when exactly it will get this service.

That said, Sprint has promised that it will be able to cover 120 million people with its LTE service by the end of the year. And it plans to have its network completed by the end of 2013.

At least initially, Sprint's LTE network will be tiny. And just as you had to wait for 4G WiMax in Los Angeles, you're going to have to wait again for 4G LTE. The real problem is that when you use either type of 4G device in a place where LTE or WiMax is not available, it uses the 3G EV-DO network. And even though this network is adequate for some things, it's much slower than other 3G networks from carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile USA.

Since LTE is not yet deployed in Los Angeles where you live, this means that you're limited only to EV-DO. Meanwhile, you could enjoy faster speeds now using a WiMax device, since the network is already deployed. Going back to a device that connects at 3G speeds for you might be like disconnecting broadband and using dial-up.

Here is what I would do if I were in your situation. If network speed is important to you, and it sounds like it is, I would try to hold onto your original HTC Evo as long as you can. That way you'll still have access to the speedier WiMax network. When your device dies, there may be 4G LTE service in your area. And then you can upgrade to a 4G LTE device. If there is still no LTE service where you live, then you need to make decision. Do you want to buy a device strictly for network speed or do you want one that likely has better hardware and software specifications that will eventually connect to a speedier network when it becomes available in Los Angeles?

I don't know how quickly Sprint will really build out its LTE network, so that is what makes this question so difficult to answer. But I can tell that if I were in your shoes, I'd wait as long as I could to make a decision. Within the next three to six months, we should have a much better picture of what Sprint plans to do.

As for the extra $10 charge for data service, the sad truth about that charge is that it's applied to every smartphone on Sprint's network. What used to be an "advanced data" charge just for 4G WiMax devices is now also applied to 3G only smartphones, such as the iPhone 4S. Personally, I think it's ridiculous. Sprint should just raise the price of its smarthphone data plans by $10 a month. So instead of claiming to offer a $99.99 unlimited everything plan, it would cost $109.99. It wouldn't sound as sexy, but it would honest. At least, Sprint hasn't gotten rid of its unlimited data plan...yet.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

Update at 5:55 a.m. PT: Reference to HD video monthly usage corrected.

Marguerite Reardon

Marguerite Reardon has been a CNET News reporter since 2004, covering cell phone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate, as well as the ongoing consolidation of the phone companies.

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