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The best and worst phone carriers of 2020

AT&T - The #3 Phone Carrier

Editors' Note: We've published the results of our latest network testing. Current rankings reflect previous results, but we plan to update scores along with new customer service rankings for wireless carriers shortly.

While Verizon and T-Mobile slug it out for the top spot in our carrier rankings, AT&T quietly put in a solid all-around performance that landed the company in third place.

The carrier slipped a little in our customer service ratings, and its unlimited data plans are the least appealing of any of the major carriers. But AT&T also offers an attractive prepaid plan, and its network performance remains strong, firmly keeping this carrier in the upper rank of cellphone service providers.

Network Performance (36/40 points)

When we tested LTE speeds in 2017, AT&T had the second-fastest download speed nationally, but fell behind T-Mobile on upload speeds and our app download test. In our more recent tests, though, AT&T had the second-fastest app download time, helping it edge past T-Mobile in our new performance rankings. 

Recently posted third-party tests praise the strides AT&T has made in improving its network, with Ookla saying that the carrier finished first in its 2019 rankings. (That's an improvement from third in 2018.) AT&T also fared well in RootMetrics' report for the second half of 2019, with the best download speed, even if Verizon took top honors for overall performance. AT&T also had the fastest download speed in the latest OpenSignal report. For what it's worth, Global Wireless Solutions rates AT&T's network as tops in the U.S.

One other word about AT&T's current network, which the carrier dubs 5G Evolution. That's not to be confused with 5G, which AT&T is in the process of rolling out. (We tested AT&T's 5G Plus network in Las Vegas, which is only available to select business customers. A 5G service built on low-band spectrum launched in December 2019 and will be available to more people, reaching 45 cities in mid-February.) Instead, 5G Evolution is a form of advanced LTE similar to what other carriers offer. 

Plans (20/25 points)

AT&T was a latecomer to the unlimited-data-plan game, previously offering limitless data only to customers who also subscribed to the company's DirecTV service. Now, anyone can get an unlimited-data plan from AT&T — and there are three new plans to consider.

AT&T plansView Deal

AT&T cut the price on its entry-level plan, as the new Unlimited Starter Plan costs $65 a month for a single line; a family of four would pay $140. Because AT&T reserves the right to slow speeds for Unlimited Starter Plan subscribers if its network gets congested, we'd recommend the AT&T Unlimited Extra Plan ($75 a month, or $160 for a family of four), which lets you use up to 50GB of data in a month before your speeds can be slowed. You also get 15GB of LTE hotspot data with that plan.

A third option, AT&T Unlimited Elite, lets you stream HD video along with access to HBO. LTE Hotspot data doubles to 30GB, and you can use up to 100GB of data without fear of getting throttled. That plan is AT&T's priciest at $85 a month.

Note that AT&T's unlimited plans used to include access to live streaming TV, but that's dropped now, apart from Unlimited Elite's HBO perk.

AT&T still has tiered-data plans. A 3GB plan costs you $50 a month, though you'll get more data from the 9GB $60 plan. Families use the same pool of data. AT&T doesn't charge overage fees if you go over your allotment though it will slow your data speeds

MORE: AT&T Phone Plan Buying Guide

Prepaid plans are more compelling. AT&T's best prepaid option offers 8GB of LTE data for $50 a month, and autopay enrollment can save you $10 off that plan. AT&T has two tiers of unlimited plans for prepaid customers, with the cheaper option subject to throttling if AT&T's network is congested; the higher priced option doesn't have that restriction, and you can also stream HD video, access WatchTV and enjoy 10GB of hotspot data.

For families, AT&T offers escalating discounts on its prepaid plans as you add more lines: Take $10 off the second and third line you add, while the fourth line qualifies for a $20 discount.

Customer Service (17/20 points)

AT&T had been our top-rated carrier for customer service before instituting a new automated phone-tree system. When we tested phone support, this new system routed us to the wrong department on a couple occasions, marring an otherwise positive experience. So AT&T tumbled below Verizon and T-Mobile in our latest rankings, though we'll be finishing another round of testing soon.

MORE: Full Report: AT&T's Customer Service

AT&T still has plenty going for it on the customer service front. The carrier's online help is extensive, its phone reps are knowledgeable, and its Twitter and Facebook accounts provide basic, if delayed, answers to support questions.

Phone Selection (8/10 points)

If there's a major flagship phone out there, chances are it's going to be available on AT&T. Not only will you find the latest iPhone and Galaxy models, but AT&T also sells the previous generation of these phones if you're looking to save a few bucks. Verizon's wrapped up a greater number of noteworthy exclusives, but AT&T can boast a few "gets" of its own, such as the Galaxy Fold.

Featured AT&T Phones: Galaxy S20 LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen, Galaxy Note 10, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Galaxy Fold, Galaxy Z Flip

MORE: Best AT&T Phones

Special Features (3/5 points)

AT&T Locker offers 50GB of free storage, which is more than you can get with a service such as Google Drive. Other AT&T apps, including AT&T Navigator and Family Map, duplicate navigation and device-finding features offered elsewhere, while charging you $9.99 a month.

If you've got an unlimited plan, you can roam in North America without worry, as AT&T offers text, talk and data in Canada and Mexico. As for other international plans, AT&T's $10 per day International Day Pass allows users to take their existing plans with them to more than 100 countries. For travelers on longer trips, AT&T offers the Passport travel plan, which starts at $60 and lasts 30 days; it now offers 1GB of data when you travel, addressing a major complaint about AT&T Passport.

  • PhilipMichaels
    Archived comments are found here: http://www.tomsguide.com/forum/id-2873661/wireless-carrier-2015.html
    Reply
  • tyronesuerpype
    I have had all of your top rated phone carriers and most may be fine if you stay in your "home" area. If you plan on traveling in the U.S., the only carrier I and my friends have had that works the best is Verizon. I had T mobile that worked great as long as I stayed home, but traveling it sucked. All the other features of these carriers do not matter if you have no cell or data service. I hated going back to Verizon, but now they have prepaid plans that are very competitive.
    Reply
  • bounds
    Really stay away from AT&T att.com. We were long time (10 year) customers who in the end their customer service lied to us and then the company did not stand behind what their reps said they would do. In the end try someone else.
    Reply
  • Rob1C
    I disagree with the way Points are divided.

    Performance taking up 40 points is too much and it's based only on Data Speed. It's essential that you never get dropped and important that you can walk or drive around without ever being in a dead spot.

    Plans is 'OK' allocated 25 points, I guess. It should be more about what would be the so-called 'Perfect Plan' that various Groups might want and how far does what is offered stray from that.

    Presumably there are 3 or 4 Groups with 3 or 4 Add-on Extras. The 'Plan Choices' being "Free and Cheap" where the reasonable number of free phones are offered with a low cost Plan. Next up is pay something towards the phone and towards the monthly rate, receiving a 'decent' phone (last year's higher end or this year's upper-mid) with some Data. Third pay a couple of hundred towards the phone and an extra $10 month to get a fair bit of Data (but not crazy, that's what the Add-ons are for). Forth Tier would be no holds barred 2-5 hundred towards the phone and 15 or 20 extra a month for lots of Data. The Add-ons could be 'Phone Upgrade' (where the cheaper Plan can get a better phone), 'Data Upgrade' (where you can bump up your Data, maybe increase Upload Speed if you upload more than the average person), and a 'Jetsetter Upgrade' for double price where you're uncapped for Roaming and Data - OR whatever you think would be a bunch of desirable options.

    The question then would be how does each Carrier's Plans differ from what it is assumed that people would want.

    Where I am we have 3 or 4 Tiers of Carriers. Number one is the richest some of whom put down Landlines back in the day, or Cablevision (either way they have the Wire or Fiber going to the Towers). Number two is owned by #1 but charges half as much, so you might as well sign with #2; they have a few fewer phones on offer or are second to get a particular phone but you can bring your own. Third Tier are the ones who discussed with the Regulators the benefits of competition and the detriment of the former monopoly. Third Tier gets to use 1st Tier's Towers for a reasonable Fee (yet charge less than half as much monthly). The 4th Tier being 'Johnny come lately' who simply showed up last with a promise of a Bankroll and an acceptable Business Plan, they're all over the map for Service and Plans ranging from copying the Big Guys to selling 'Monthly Cards' from Gas Stations and Convenience Stores (still around 50-60% of Tier 1 rates).

    If you can divide all that into 25 points ... good going !

    For the other sectors the Customer Service HAS to be good enough, I was with one of the biggest Tier 1s, damn you if you wanted something - 20 minutes of Elevator Music interspersed with telling you what spot in line you were and an estimated wait time. Once I waited 40 minutes, when they asked how they could help I explained that I had waited over a half hour and asked that they hire more people politely mentioning that if other callers were grumpy that would be the reason why - they replied that they had just hired over 500 people to which I replied that it must be insufficient as the wait was unrealistic but they didn't seem to get my point.

    Speakerphone was your only friend, it kept you from losing the circulation in your arm (speaking of which).

    If they're Tier 1 and charge the max for everything they had best not be ripping you anywhere be it a limited selection of phones, the extortion pricing for years or extended waits for lousy service - all that should lump into Service and drop the score.

    Lastly (because I'll type no more and the reader is likely nodding off) the Phone and Extras should score more.

    The selection of phones should be decent from bleeding edge to refurbished for free.

    Bring your own phone and get a discount is an important feature - some dogs only sell you a phone with a Plan and every couple of years it's a new Plan at an increased cost.

    As for Extras what are those, Tech Support comes from the Internet and it's not like I need phone lessons or an oil change - if they'd take 4 year old phones for a $100 tradein that would be something but they don't ...

    Want me to Manage your Cellular Provider? tell them they need Rob not you need to be robbed.
    Reply
  • morty8908
    TL;DR-tests were a joke and not objective, Look at Ooklas site to see who has the has the fastest service

    Verizon Has consistently lost in the data speed category (according to Okla, the site you claim to have used.) you also offer no information about the devices or settings you used. if you are using 2 of the same phones with the exact same settings,battery life, and even cell phones cases, then maybe this could be called a fair trial. but you went to only six cities, why not just look on Ookla's actual site for who has the fastest? T-mobile every time. I understand Verizon has to pay saps like you to say they are the best. The only way you could get anyone to maybe believe this is the fact that you only let them win by 1 point. Any more and you would have been laughed at (more so than right now anyway.)

    Also, as someone who as used both services, T-mobile has fantastic customer service. Every provider has Philippines call centers, so depending on when you are calling in (maybe one provider has a promotion going on and they are busier than usual so you get routed more often to those crap centers in the Philippines) and judging performance of customer service, you need to remove the calls from the Philippines and instead only rate those calls from the corporate customer service, not third party overflow.
    Reply
  • sakman74
    For the past 6 months, one of our verizon wireless lines has been charged international outgoing calls.
    I have explained to verizon multiple times, that the line is using a calling card based in the US (a US number) and that the call log of the device (which is never touched) does not show these outgoing direct international calls.

    in the past there used to be no way for someone to make a direct international call from a verizon wireless phone, at least this was not possible on our lines. it seems in recent times that has changed and the representative said there is no way to turn that 'feature' off.

    we are basically being told the verizon bill log never lies. we have - to date - been charged $ 300 for such calls which were not made directly from the phone to an international number.

    before you decide who to choose simply based on who comes out number 1, look at this example of what the carrier is doing to it's customers - before you choose verizon wireless.
    Reply
  • jerbigge
    I have Tracfone. I'm a long term member and quite satisfied with Tracfone. However if you want to make a lot of calls, text a lot, or download data,
    Tracfone isn't for you. It is best for the individual who only carries a cell phone for occasional use, accidents, etc. I'm quite happy with my iPhone SE
    I purchased from Tracfone for a very good price. However dealing with Apple makes you feel like you are dealing with a government agency where
    everything is done the way "they" decide. Most businesses that I deal with online put some sort of "cookie" on your computer so after this is done,
    you just "sign in" with your user name and password already stored. My user name and password I use on Amazon dates back to the start of this
    century. I've never had a bit of trouble with them. Apple? Like signing in to the CIA... The people who work the customer service lines do their
    best, but the entire experience dealing with the company is about like dealing with some government agency that doesn't give a damn about
    customer satisfaction. They do make a very good product, but I have no intention of buying say a book or music or anything else from Apple.
    Reply
  • bulkbuy
    I highly recommend adding a measure to the analysis for coverage in rural areas. Educators, Consumers, & Businesses located in rural areas have been widely shorted by wireless providers in rural areas. Its 2017 and time 4G wireless data and voice truly be a reliable nationwide benchmark. Education systems nationwide including ones in rural areas count on the fact, children will have access to the latest technologies available today. But the truth is, some simply do not due to the FCC preventing actions to require carriers to provide complete coverage for areas they market in.
    Reply
  • the2ndflood
    Verizon is by far the best carrier, especially here in Tennessee. Everyone that I know who lives in a remote area, is only able to use Verizon. I am surprised though, that Straight Talk has such slow data speeds, even when on Verizon's network. I have been reading that Verizon has lifted its policies on limited data speeds on for MVNO's using their carrier. But definitely, by far, MVNO's have the worst possible customer care! Holy **** is it bad! You have to tap through tons of menu options and if you do manage to get a hold of someone, they either will not help or just hang up on you! Verizon also wins in customer care as well. Each reply will even give you their work email address, so you can contact them when you need more help.
    Reply
  • 89startup
    thanks for the info! I use Verizon and I'm completely satisfied with its work
    Reply