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Comparing Cellphone-Service Providers (cont.)

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Verizon brought its LTE-A network to 461 cities that cover about 90 percent of the U.S. population in 2016. T-Mobile, which started to implement LTE-A as far back as 2014, now covers 425 cities. Sprint has 250 markets that cover a majority of the country, Sprint Technology COO Gunther Ottendorfer says. AT&T enabled LTE-A in the “vast majority” of its LTE network, spokesperson Meghan Callahan tells us. All four carriers are expected to improve and install LTE-A technologies throughout 2017 that will enable not only faster downloads but also better upload times, Williamson says.

Carriers don’t charge you more to access their LTE-A network, but you have to have a smartphone that’s compatible with LTE-A to access its higher speeds. Otherwise, you’ll get LTE speeds. Fortunately, it’s easier to tell whether your smartphone is compatible, and more new models are. As of press time, Verizon had at least 40 LTE-A models out of a total of 52 smartphones that were available to buy online, and the carrier labels all LTE-A-enabled phones clearly on its website. Company spokesperson Howard Waterman tells us that Verizon plans to have every new smartphone on its network be compatible with LTE-A by the end of 2017. The same goes for Sprint, Ottendorfer says.

AT&T and T-Mobile hadn’t disclosed their 2017 plans for LTE-A phones as of press time, but considering that smartphone-makers are building support for LTE-A into their models, we believe that it’s reasonable to expect that the majority of smartphones that are introduced in 2017 will be LTE-A-ready.

NOW HEAR THIS. All five of the analysts whom we interviewed agree that Sprint and T-Mobile improved the reliability of their networks significantly over the past 2 years. “Sprint and T-Mobile have become better networks in more places,” Williamson says. “They’re becoming stronger national networks.”

However, Sprint’s ubiquitous—and accurate—TV-ad claim of a 1-percent reliability gap between it and AT&T or Verizon belies what that 1 percent means to consumers. Entner explains that a 1 percent difference in, say, the dropped-call rate can be noticeable.

More important, every analyst whom we interviewed says national rankings ultimately are irrelevant, because most consumers don’t travel across the country on a regular basis. “Ninety percent of consumers are spending 90 percent of the time in mostly the same place,” Entner says. So, the metric to which consumers should pay attention is local network reliability. AT&T and Verizon have the better odds of being the most reliable network in your neighborhood, Williamson says, but plenty of locations exist where two or three networks are equally as reliable.

Case in point: Verizon scored the highest nationally in RootMetrics’ most recent survey of wireless performance. However, if you lived in, say, San Antonio, AT&T was the performance winner, while T-Mobile took top honors in Providence, Rhode Island.

JUMP FOR JOY. Consumers shouldn’t expect big changes in the way that the big four sell smartphones in 2017, says Brian Haven of market-research company IDC. However, whereas AT&T, Sprint and Verizon limit how often that you can upgrade a phone (unless you want to continue to buy a new one outright), T-Mobile introduced a program late in 2015 that lets you upgrade your phone three times over a 12-month period. We believe that it’s the most attractive deal for those who always want the latest and greatest technology.

Called Jump On Demand, the plan involves an 18-month lease. During that period, you’re eligible to trade in your smartphone (provided it’s in “good condition”—a term that we have no reason to believe that T-Mobile manipulates for its own purposes) for a new model up to three times over a 12-month period. Jump On Demand has no extra or hidden fees, but your trade-in options are limited to the base model of each phone or the phone that has the least amount of internal memory. You can make a one-time payment to access models that have more internal memory. (The amount varies by phone—for instance, you’ll have to pay $100 upfront to get the 128GB version of the iPhone 7 but nothing upfront for the entry-level iPhone 7.)

For avid upgraders, buying three new phones over a 12-month period might be enough to scratch the upgrade itch. For those of us who are content with the more modest (but still rather brisk) 24-month upgrade cycle, we only can scratch our heads as we ponder having to transfer all of those apps and passwords from one device to the next.

Greg Scoblete is a journalist who has covered technology for 15 years for This Week in Consumer Electronics, Photo District News and RealClearFuture, among others.

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