Get the most byte for your buck: Who has the best 3G/4G plan?

In the last year, there have been a lot of changes in the way that mobile operators charge for 3G/4G data: more operators have dropped unlimited plans, revamped their pricing structures and introduced new tiers for tablets and mobile hotspots. So at GigaOM, we figured it was time we updated you on just what the Big Four nationwide operators are charging for a gigabyte these days. It’s certainly very different from what they charged three years ago, when the unlimited plan still ruled.
For this post, I’m just tackling the Big 4, exploring the price-per-gygabyte differences between their most common mid-tier smartphone and tablet/modem plans. I should point out there are several other regional carriers, like MetroPCS(s PCS), and innovative new virtual operators, such as Republic Wireless, that are overturning the norms of mobile data pricing. But I’ll get to them a separate post. Like it or not, Verizon(s vz)(vod), AT&T(s t), Sprint(s s) and T-Mobile are the operators the overwhelming majority of us look to for mobile services.


All of the operators offer a myriad of data plans at different price points and megabyte allotments, but for the purposes of this post we identified each of the carrier’s $30 plans (which in some cases required ferreting out the data portion of their bundles). The idea here is to show who offers the most bang for your buck in what we consider a reasonable mid-tier plan. Keep in mind, though, that some of the big bucket plans are only a deal if you really use them. If you’re like most U.S. smartphone users you probably consume less than 1 GB a month.

  • Sprint Unlimited (The name says it all): Sprint is the last major operator to offer truly unlimited smartphone access without throttling to its 3G EV-DO and 4G WiMAX network (where it’s available). Also, you can’t use your phone as a hotspot unless you sign up for an additional $30 upgrade, which caps tethered data at 5 GB ($6/GB).
  • T-Mobile Classic 5 GB ($6/GB): T-Mobile calls all its plans unlimited, but it throttles back speeds once you hit your monthly cap on its HSPA+ network. That doesn’t mean it’s not the next biggest bargain after Sprint (though Classic plan prices are set to increase). But T-Mo is also on oddball since it has separate pricing structures depending on whether you opt for a subsidized device. If you bring you own device or buy your phone upfront, you can take advantage of a T-Mobile Value plan and save $5 off the normally $30 plan price, which adds up to $5/GB. All of T-Mobile’s upper tier plans also allow you to use your phone as a hotspot at no extra charge, so if you tether your phone you stand a pretty good chance of actually using up your 5 gigs.
  • AT&T DataPro 3GB ($10/GB): AT&T recently hiked prices for new customers on its HSPA and LTE networks, but in the process it drove down the cost it charges for a megabyte. The end result is new customers pay a $5 premium over the old $25 plan, but they get an extra gig. That works out to be a savings of $2.50/GB. AT&T is still much pricier than Sprint and T-Mobile, and it doesn’t allow you to use personal hotspot features unless you upgrade to the $50 tier.
  • Verizon Data for Smartphones: 2 GB ($15/GB): Verizon Wireless is by far the most expensive mobile data provider, though when you get into the elevated tiers it does cut you some slack.. If you’re willing to commit to 10 GBs a month, you pay $8/GB, and it charges for overages at $10/GB. To use your phone as a hotspot you need to buy an additional 2 GB for $20. Verizon has always taken a get-what-you-pay-for attitude. It may be expensive, but it has both the most extensive 3G and LTE networks.

Tablets and mobile broadband

The smartphone rankings practically invert when it comes to tablet and modem pricing. It’s worth noting that with tablets and hotspots, the differences in data buckets really matter to the average users. While it might be hard to eat up multiple gigabytes on a smartphone, it’s actually quite easy on an iPad(s aapl). We aimed for the $30/month mark here as well, but not every operator has a plan at that price point. So instead we took the closest plan to $30 each offers and calculated the cost per gigabyte.

  • AT&T Data Connect for Tablets ($10/GB): AT&T has a bunch of different types of plans for its non-smartphone devices but once you get to the $30 tier they pretty much work out to $10/GB (including overages). The exception is if you buy a subsidized Android(s goog) tablet on contract, where a 3 GB plans costs $35. Also, if you sign up for a laptop, hotspot or dongle plan, your minimum commitment is $50 for 5 GB.
  • Sprint Mobile Broadband ($11.67/GB):  Sprint stopped selling unlimited data plans for everything but smartphones last October, and the data tiers that replaced unlimited aren’t very exciting. It’s closest tier to $30 a month is $35 plan with 3 GB of data for tablet and hotspot plans. What’s more Sprint charges some pretty punitive rates for overages: 5 cents a megabyte, which works out to be an extraordinary $50/GB.
  • Verizon Mobile Broadband ($15/GB): If anything Verizon is consistent. It charges the same data rates and overage fees for smartphones, tablets or modems, as well as for contract and prepaid services. The pricing here is for the standard $30/2 GB tablet data pricing plan, but if you opt for a subsidized hotspot of dongle the minimum charge is $50 for 5 GB.
  • T-Mobile Mobile Broadband ($20/GB): T-Mobile’s progressive data pricing in smartphones becomes awfully regressive when you get to tablet and modem plans. Its cheapest $40 tier gives you a only 2 GB of unthrottled data. If you go for the unsubsidized device or bring your own tablet,  prices drop by $10 ($15/GB), but that’s still hardly the deal of its smartphone plans.

Sale image courtesy of Flickr User Peter Kaminski