AT&T - The #3 Phone Carrier
Editors' Note: We've published the results of our latest network testing. Current rankings reflect 2017's 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 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)
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. When we tested LTE networks this time around, though, AT&T had the second-fastest app download time, helping it edge past T-Mobile in our new performance rankings. We'll update our scores to reflect these results soon; when we do, look for AT&T's performance grade to improve.
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 first half of the year, where it matched Verizon for texting performance and finished second in all other categories, including overall performance. AT&T and T-Mobile tied for network response time in the latest OpenSignal report, but AT&T posted fast download speeds in major cities, the testing firm said. 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 network in Las Vegas, even though the carrier is only offering 5G devices to select business customers.) 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, hasn't launched yet, but when it does, you'll be able to stream HD video and get 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
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.
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 BlackBerry KeyOne.
Featured AT&T Phones: Galaxy S10, LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen, Galaxy Note 10, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Galaxy Fold
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.