Punt: iPhone 5 release date, not 4S, for Sprint-AT&T-Verizon switch
October 22, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Longtime iPhone users suddenly have choices in front of them when it comes to U.S. carriers, with the iPhone 4S representing an opportunity to jump ship from AT&T to Verizon or Sprint. But users might do well to punt this time around in favor of using the iPhone 5 release date as their decision point. Those users who’ve had nothing but problems with AT&T’s network in their area rightly see the tri-carrier 4S launch as an obvious escape hatch. But for those who’ve had a decent AT&T experience and are left unsure of which of the three carriers they’re best of being with, there may not yet be enough information on the table with which to make a decision. The 4G LTE networks which each of the three carriers build will go a long way toward dictating the quality of each going forward, and the way in which data usage is treated will play a large factor in which of the carriers is ultimately the most reasonably priced. And of course you want to be with a carrier that’s is good enough shape that it can continue offering what you’ve been promised. For those who do decide to punt until the iPhone 5 surfaces, either by skipping the iPhone 4S or by buying it from their current carrier and eating the early termination fee next year if necessary, here’s a look at what to watch for in early 2012…
First there are the 4G wars. All three U.S. iPhone carriers say they’re going with 4G LTE, which strongly points to the iPhone 5 being 4G LTE when it arrives (although there’s no guarantee of that). Verizon has built enough LTE towers to cover about a third of all Americans mostly in bigger cities. AT&T has LTE up and running in five cities. Sprint has no LTE presence, as up until now it’s been relying on a competing, slower kind of 4G. Verizon looks like it’ll win the race. AT&T is behind and its history suggests that it might not even fully build out its LTE network nationwide; its current network consists of 3G in cities and bigger towns and the previous-generation EDGE in smaller towns. Sprint’s current nationwide (quasi) 4G network suggests it’ll build LTE nationwide as well. That makes Verizon the best bet for LTE, and depending on how you look at it, AT&T or Sprint the worst…
Then there’s mobile data usage. From email and web surfing to online maps and social networking and social gaming, there’s more data usage on smartphones than ever. And with wifi way too hard to find outside the home in places other than hotels and coffee shops, users are pushing ever more data over 3G/4G networks. Depending on how you want to look at it, the carriers are either protecting the quality of their networks by limiting how much data each user can use each month, or they’re setting up arbitrary traps to ensure that many or most customers will have to pay data overage fees each month. AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers awhile ago, but still grandfathers in its longtime customers. Verizon offered unlimited data to new customers up until this summer, but has since closed that door as well. Sprint still offers unlimited data plans to new customers and is using that fact as a tactic to try to get existing iPhone users to move to Sprint as of the iPhone 4S. But Sprint can convert those unlimited plans to limited offerings at any time – just as AT&T and Verizon can do the same to their existing grandfathered customers. For those already grandfathered in on AT&T, moving to Verizon means giving up unlimited data, while moving to Sprint comes down to which carrier you trust not to pull the unlimited plug on you.
So why punt? Because LTE networks are still in their infancy, and while some carriers are clearly ahead of others, it’s not yet clear who’ll get to the finish line first (or at all), and the iPhone isn’t an LTE device yet anyway. Because limited data plans could turn out to be harmless or they could turn out to be a scam-like way in which your carrier gashes you each month with exorbitant overage fees, forcing you to curtail your iPhone usage. And because no one yet knows whether Sprint’s iPhone gambit will save the company from its current financial challenges or make them worse, just as no one yet knows whether the AT&T – T-Mobile merger will go through and whether it would make the AT&T experience better or worse.
There are always unknowns. Even once the iPhone 5 release date arrives, buyers will be working with an incomplete set of data regarding the future of each of the three iPhone carriers. But we’re in a particularly transitional spot in late 2011, with regards to the future of mobile networks, the future of mobile data, and the future of the iPhone itself. The iPhone 4S is a major step up from the iPhone 4, but is it also a signal that it’s time to switch carriers? Each iPhone user will need to decide that on their own. Here’s more on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.