On a road trip with AT&T, Sprint and Verizon

Published: January 20, 2014

Late Saturday night I was having a conversation with a friend about the weather. He was commenting to me that it was the middle of January, and yet the forecast was telling him that it was going to be around 80 degrees in his neck of the woods in the next few days. I had to see this for myself, and sure enough, he was right. Worse, though, was that it was going to be the same for me right around the same time.

Upon seeing that, and having already dealt with enough "nice" weather since the onset of winter in general, I decided to take a trip. I didn't have a destination, per se, but I knew the direction I wanted to go: north. I wanted to see snow, and have to actually use a coat. 

Before I left, I realized that I could turn this into a nice experiment. I took a look at the phones I had available, one from AT&T, another from Sprint and one from Verizon, and knew exactly what I was going to do. A road trip, but with three of the big four wireless carriers here in the United States.

I thought about making this little experiment about speeds, but instead I focused on coverage in general.

Why? Because I decided to take a route that's not just major interstates. More accurately, most people would probably describe most of the trip as "BFE." I like to call it the scenic route. While testing speeds across this long trip would probably be interesting, I don't think it's relevant. When you're on a trip across any stretch of the country, you want to make sure that you've got a phone, or a way of communication, just in case anything happens. Better to be safe than sorry.

So that's why when I got in my car and started, I made sure all three of my devices were fully charged, and as soon as I hit north of Flagstaff, Arizona, I started tracking the strength of signal on each device. I stopped more than a few times along my way, too, and at each stop I tried to make a phone call from each device, no matter what the signal indicator was telling me.

The results were kind of surprising, but as a whole I'm not at all shocked at what I found. So, here are my results on my trip from Phoenix, Arizona to Telluride, Colorado.

Sprint

I'll be honest: There was a moment, right about the mid-point of my trip, that I thought about changing the focus of this article on just AT&T and Verizon, simply because the Sprint handset I was using (a Samsung ATIV S Neo) just wasn't connecting to the Now Network at all. The stretch between Flagstaff, Arizona and Kayenta, Arizona was dead-space, with both phone calls and text messages failing the instant I tried to send out. This was a common thread through much of the trip.

However, it's not completely dead air. Even in the smallest of towns, Sprint managed to have 3G service. There were a few there, especially near Four Corners, that I was absolutely shocked the Now Network had any signal coverage at all, considering the remote nature, but it did. Not only that, it was a full signal, too.

In a shocking turn of events, about 20 minutes north of Cortez, Colorado, the ATIV S Neo was the only device that had any service at all. It's noteworthy because of the mountainous region. Both AT&T and Verizon dropped to no service more than a few times in this region, but Sprint held out the longest.

Along the way, there were two things that stood out to me the most. The first: Nowhere I went had Sprint's 4G LTE service. The second: Sprint had the strongest signal more often than not. While it may not have been LTE or even 4G, the Sprint signal was usually always at full bars, while the other two devices hovered near the middle.

Verizon

Big Red's network is the one to beat, right? I was honestly looking forward to putting AT&T and Verizon head-to-head, since the two companies love to go head-to-head in advertising. (I doubt either one of them really love it all that much.) So, as I made my way north, I was curious to see how Verizon withstood the regional stretches of land, where the only company consisted of cows and horses.

Admirably, to say the least. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 I was using lost signal only a handful of times. The majority of the time, the Verizon network did its best to keep me on at least 1X. The handset did lose service more times than I thought it would, though, and it always dropped out in the most inopportune times. The furthest stretches of empty road, in between any type of towns, the signal would die out. Or, driving into a mountainous region. The Galaxy S 4 very rarely hit full bars on its signal indicator, though. Even when I made it to towns with 4G LTE coverage, the signal hovered between two or three bars.

The one thing that jumped out at me while I was testing Verizon's network, was that the phone only connected to a 3G network about four times. It was either 4G LTE or 1X (or no service) for the majority of the trip.

AT&T

AT&T's GSM network held up well enough from Point A to Point B. The signal strength on the iPhone 5s I was using stayed consistently in the middle, and only dropped to one or two dots a couple of times. It very rarely hit full bars, though. Moreover, as soon as I hit any type of mountainous region, or dropped into a valley, AT&T's network dropped off the map entirely.

The AT&T network was the quickest to regain its strength, though, based on what I saw on my trip. When all three devices would lose service, it was the AT&T device that usually caught connectivity the fastest. It may have only been EDGE, which I was on for the majority of the trip with AT&T, but it worked well enough.

Two things caught my attention with AT&T: The fact that I covered every single signal type on the network through my trip: GPRS, EDGE, 3G, 4G and LTE, but that I saw EDGE and 4G the most. AT&T did have LTE coverage in every town I stopped to get gas in. Which brings me to the other thing: AT&T and Verizon's networks are constantly in a fight, trading blows. When AT&T's network was 4G, then Verizon's was 4G LTE more often than not. When AT&T dropped to EDGE, Verizon was at 1X. They were similar more often than they were different, though.

The end of the trip

For this particular trip, I wasn't at all shocked at what I found. The long stretches without Sprint connectivity, AT&T's LTE service only in towns/cities, and Verizon's 4G LTE strength without any kind of 3G backbone to speak of. Overall, I wasn't thrown any curveballs, nor was I particularly shocked at the results.

Everywhere in the country is going to be different. There are so many roads, and so many different ways for you to choose to arrive at your destination. However, with that in mind, and after this little experiment, I'm glad that I wasn't carrying only a Sprint device. Sprint's network showed the strongest strength in town, even with any kind of service above 3G, but those long stretches of no service would make me worried about any kind of accident or emergency.

In the end, there's one thing that I want the networks to focus on in 2014, and moving forward, and that's making their networks stronger in general. That's ultimately what I learned from this trip, and this experiment. It's great that we've got such fast speeds in metropolitan areas, and even in some small pockets across the country, but the truth is that there are still huge expanses of land that aren't covered at all. Some of the areas that many would consider "dangerous" during certain months just aren't covered, which makes reaching emergency services worrisome.

And, one last note: I didn't bring T-Mobile with me because I didn't have a device handy at the time. I'd certainly be curious to see how T-Mobile's Magenta network stands to the real world test, though. Maybe next time.

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