Verizon vs. Sprint 4G - Sheer speed vs. unlimited data?

In the 4G race between Verizon and Sprint, the difference is how fast you can go vs. how much you can download.

Earlier this week, I looked at Sprint's pre-paid smartphones and 3G data service, noting that rate plans for 3G service on the Virgin Mobile imprint amounted to great values compared to other carriers: $40/month for unlimited data with MiFi and EVDO modem options and unlimited text and data for smartphones started at just $25/month (with 300 minutes of voice service) ranging to $60/month for unlimited voice and data – all without requiring a contract.

Tonight, I'm taking another look at Sprint's pricing and service, but this time from the carrier's traditional post-paid service market. In particular, I'm going to look at their 4G WiMax service. Sprint has been aggressively pushing its WiMax rollout over the past couple of weeks with over a dozen new markets (and expectation to cover up to 120 million customers by year's end).

Meanwhile, Verizon is set to take the wraps of its own 4G service based on the LTE standard. That service was recently previewed by GigaOm and is planned to be available to customers this Sunday.

Note: Yes, I know that neither service is technically "4G" as defined by the ITU, but the marketing monikers have stuck. So, I expect the term will be continued to be used regardless of the technology used by carriers. I covered the confusion of all this a few weeks ago (including T-Mobile branding its HSPA+ service as 4G even though it's technically a 3G technology).

Aside from the different technologies being used between Sprint and Verizon (and Sprint's early lead in deployment), I'm struck by the differences in the ways each company are planning to bill customers for 4G service.

For service on a 4G modem or MiFi device (Sprint currently offers both as well as Android phones, though Verizon will initially ship just two 4G modem options), Verizon will offer customers a choice of 5GB/month at $50 or 10GB/month for $80 with 3G service included under the same plans when users leave a 4G coverage area. Sprint by contrast is continuing its all-you-can-eat approach to data service – offering unlimited 4G service for $60/month (but capping 3G service to 5GB).

This is really a surprise. Sprint remains the one carrier that has stated it has no interest in tiered pricing for data. The philosophy fits in with both Sprint's approach to pre-paid service as well as the company's simplified plans that offer traditional customers a flat rate for voice and data. Given the changes in policies by other carriers, this may be Sprint's best bet to differentiate itself from competitors.

It's worth noting that while this unlimited data approach (with or without unlimited voice) is certainly attractive, particularly to heave data users, that the theoretical speeds of Verizon's LTE network will be faster (up to 12mbps) than Sprint's WiMax (up to 6mbps). In real world situations, however, that difference may not be particularly noticeable – and both technologies are improvements of the 3G-based EVDO technologies that both carriers offer.

In the end, Sprint's unique approach but different technology means that potential customers need to choose what's most important to them: sheer speed (which may or may not be needed or seen in real-world use) or unlimited data (which also may or may not be needed). Of course, there's also the question of coverage area and loyalty to either a carrier or specific devices. A year from now, it'll be interesting to see which carrier (and thus which technology and/or billing model) succeeds (or if both succeed).

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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