AT&T - The #3 Phone Carrier
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 this year, and its recently unveiled unlimited-data plans are the least appealing of any of the major carriers. But AT&T also offers an attractively 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)
In our latest LTE speed testing, AT&T had the second-fastest download speed nationally, at 25.6 Mbps, trailing only Verizon's 36-Mbps average. T-Mobile (and its subsidiary, MetroPCS) both had faster upload averages than AT&T, though, and AT&T had the third fastest time in our app-download test. Put it all together, and it adds up to a fourth-place finish for the carrier in our speed rankings.
Still, AT&T can point to some bright spots in our testing. It had the best performance in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with solid numbers in New York and Houston, as well.
Prepaid plans are more compelling now that AT&T has upped the amount of monthly data.
Third-party network-testing firms also see AT&T's network as a solid performer. OpenSignal has AT&T's speeds improving after a dip tied to its introduction of unlimited data plans in early 2017; the testing firm also says AT&T has the most responsive data signal in its most recent report. RootMetrics ranks AT&T as a strong performer, finishing second behind Verizon. Global Wireless Solutions ranked AT&T as the best performing network for streaming video.
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, which has just adjusted the pricing on its two unlimited options.
AT&T Unlimited Plus Enhanced is the better option, especially now that AT&T cut the monthly price to $80 and increased the amount of LTE hotspot data to 15GB. As before, you can stream HD video and watch HBO for free. The other plan, Unlimited Choice Enhanced, isn't as cheap as it once was, but the $65-a-month option has removed the worst of its limitations — HBO no longer caps data speeds at 3 Mbps for Unlimited Choice users. It will throttle your speed if there's a lot of traffic on its network.
Both of AT&T's unlimited plans let you add on the DirecTV Now streaming service for a discounted rate.
AT&T still has tiered-data plans, but they're not terribly compelling once you factor in the carrier's $20 monthly access fee. (AT&T actually charges a $30 access fee on its unlimited plans, but that's baked into the overall price.) With tiered data, you can roll over unused data, though, and AT&T doesn't charge overage fees if you go over your allotment.
Prepaid plans are a little more compelling now that AT&T has upped the amount of monthly data. 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. That's 3GB more than MetroPCS offers its customers for the same price. AT&T does cap speeds on its cheapest unlimited prepaid plan, though, which MetroPCS does not; however, a $75 monthly prepaid plan offers unlimited data with no speed cap; you can also stream HD video 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.
AT&T's online help is extensive, and the company's phone reps are knowledgeable.
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.
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 new Galaxy S8 Active (though that phone has since become available at other carriers).
Featured AT&T Phones: Galaxy S9, iPhone X, 8 and 8 Plus, Galaxy S8, LG V30, LG V35 ThinQ, ZTE Axon M
MORE: Best AT&T Phones
Special Features (3/5 points)
If you have a tiered-data plan, you can watch DirecTV content — including the much-maligned DirecTV Now streaming service — and it won't count against your monthly allotment. Unlimited plan subscribers can also get discounts for bundling DirecTV service, and free HBO comes with your unlimited data plan.
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.