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The votes are in: Which mobile data provider is best?

Preston Gralla | Feb. 4, 2014
Which U.S. cell phone service is the best when it comes to what you really use a phone for these days -- data? Which gives you the most widespread and reliable access to its data network, fast upload and download speeds, the most bang for your buck?

What do people use their data connection for? Primarily three things: 89% go online for information such as search results, maps, weather, transit details and business ratings; 85% use it for email; and 72% use it for Web browsing.

Social networking came in a distant fourth, with 35% of people using it for that. Apart from that, no other single use — downloading apps, streaming music or videos, shopping, using cloud storage/productivity tools, etc. — cracked the 30% barrier.

Our survey also shows that online mobile gaming hasn't caught on with respondents: Only 7% said they use their smartphones to play games online.

Plans, contracts and costs

When it comes to contracts and plans, survey respondents are a family-oriented bunch, with 50% on family plans and 27% on individual plans.

The remainder are nearly evenly split between business plans (12%) and data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets (11%).

Long-term contracts, rather than month-to-month or pre-paid ones, still rule: 84% of respondents have long-term contracts, 12% are month to month and 4% are pre-paid.

And despite provider attempts to the contrary, unlimited data plans are still common: 56% of respondents are on unlimited plans, 40% are on tiered plans and 4% don't know.

Those numbers are deceiving, though, because Sprint and T-Mobile customers overwhelmingly are on unlimited plans, with about 96% of Sprint subscribers with unlimited plans (only 1% say they are on a tiered plan, and the other 3% don't know), and 73% of T-Mobile users on unlimited plans.

As for pricing, the results are divided into two groups: those who reported monthly costs for their data plan only, and those who said they use a voice + data bundle.

In the data-only group, slightly more than half — 51% — pay $40 or less for their monthly data service, 24% pay between $41 and $60, 11% pay between $61 and $80, 6% pay between $81 and $100, 7% pay between $101 and $150, and just 1% pay between $151 and $200 for data only.

In the voice + data bundle group, 18% pay less than $40 per month, 20% pay from $41 to $60, 15% pay from $61 to $80, $13% pay from $81 to $100, 16% pay from $101 to $150, and 9% pay from $151 to $200. At the top end of the spectrum, 9% spend more than $200 per month for a voice + data bundle.

Why people chose their mobile providers

We also asked participants on what basis they chose their carriers: price, coverage, plan options, the availability of a specific phone, or "other." We asked them to rank how important each factor was, with 1 being the most important and 5 being the least important.


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