Comparing Family Plans: Sprint vs. T-Mobile vs. AT&T vs. Verizon

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The only downside to Sprint’s new Family Share Pack plans is the loss of the Framily ad campaign, which was the best thing since the Geico cavemen debuted. But before you go bemoaning the loss of such high comedy, consider the fact it was a sacrifice that was made to save you money. Not so bad, right?

Sprint Family Share Pack breakdownNow, just because a carrier tells you that it’s giving you the best deal around doesn’t mean it’s still not out to get your cash. In that case, it’s always prudent to shop until you find the right package for you. The problem is that the big four carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon) make it as hard as possible to do that, frequently obfuscating specifics behind limited time offers and prerequisites.

So we’re going to try helping you out. To give you an idea of which family data plan may be best for you, we decided to pick a typical scenario: a family of four, a handful of smartphones, and a 2 GB per person data plan. Here’s what we found.

Bring Your Own Phone or Buy New?

Samsung Galaxy S5The cost of wrapping a set of four new phones into any of the below packages depends on what type of handset you pick. With Sprint, for instance, you can buy an iPhone 5c for around $23 per month, per device, for 24 months with no annual service agreement. If you sign up for a 2-year contract, the phone is free, but then you’re committed, and you may have to pay as much as $350 in early termination fees if you want to change from certain carriers before your agreement is up. A Samsung Galaxy S5 will run you around $27 per month, meanwhile, and a Google Nexus 5 is around $17 per month extra, per handset.

In most cases, you’re either going to have to bring your own smartphones to the party or pay up front in order to save the most money on the plan. Paying pay the full cost of your phone may sound like a costly proposition, but it usually leads to long-term savings compared to buying subsidized phones.

Sprint

The newly announced Family Share Pack claims to offer “double the high-speed data at a lower price than AT&T and Verizon” but conspicuously leaves T-Mobile out, which is a not-so-subtle hint at who the yellow carrier’s biggest competition is in this space.

SprintAs an incentive to switch to Sprint, the company offers a $100 per month plan (before surcharges and fees) for 20 GB of data, as well as unlimited talk and text, for up to 10 lines. In response to a new limited time offer from AT&T, Sprint is doubling the data allowed on its more expensive Share Pack plans (normally ranging from $130 per month for 32 GB to $225 for 60 GB) until October 31. If you sign up for one of those before then, though, you get to keep that plan for as long as you use it.

Here’s the normal deal: Signing up for a Family Share Pack gets you a waived $15 per month/per line access charge through December 31, 2015. After that, the cost will jump back up to $160 per month for a four-phone plan. Until September 30, Sprint will tack on an additional 8 GB (2 GB per line in a group of four) for free through January 2, 2016 – effectively upping those 20 GB to 28 GB and also extending each phone from a 1 GB monthly limit to 2.5 GB. After the promotional period runs out in 2016, data goes back down to 1 GB per line.

Unfortunately, this promotion is only available to new customers; if you already subscribe to Sprint, you’ll pay $160 per month for the same plan. Remember, this is the unsubsidized cost — you’ll pay more for new smartphones — but Sprint’s sweetened the deal by stealing a page from T-Mobile’s playbook and offering you a contract buyout of up to $350 per line.

T-Mobile

Now that the rumored merger between T-Mobile and Sprint has been called off, it’s game on again between the third- and fourth-place carriers. Not one to be outdone by the likes of its former courter, T-Mobile offers a four-line family plan called Simple Choice for $100 per month, which comes with unlimited talk and text and 2.5 GB of 4G LTE data per phone until the end of 2015.

T-MobileOnce you hit 2016, though, that data allotment is taken down to 1 GB. Another drawback is that speeds are reduced after each phone hits that 2.5 GB limit, even if the rest of the family hasn’t eaten up their individually allotted gigs. By contrast, other carriers treat data allotments like shared buckets that are open to everyone.

T-Mobile makes up for this with unlimited music streaming through Pandora and a few other services. In other words, streaming music from any of the partner services doesn’t eat into your gig allowance.

Furthermore, it’s also done away with overage charges; if someone in your group goes over their monthly data allowance, their speeds will be dialed back to 3G without any financial penalty. This runs counter to the other carriers, which generally charge around $15 for every GB you go over your limit.

As with Sprint, the $100 charge doesn’t include any device payments, so expect to pay more (about $20 to $30 per device) if you’re also financing a quartet of new smartphones.

AT&T

Navigating AT&T’s data plans can be easy if you’re determined to give them your business, and about as confusing as advanced trigonometry if you’re comparison shopping. Mobile Share pricing for four lines and 10 GB of data is $100, and includes unlimited talk and text. As noted above, Ma Bell is running a special promotion through October 31 that doubles the data on all of its pricier non-10 GB family plans at no extra cost – though, again, those who sign up before the cutoff date get to keep the plan as long as they stay on it.

AT&TTo be eligible for a Mobile Share plan, however, you must sign up for AT&T Next, the carrier’s no-service-contract annual upgrade program. That brings the total service cost for four lines sharing 10 GB up to $160. Confused? We wouldn’t blame you.

The reason it’s $160 is because AT&T Next charges $15 per phone, per month, adding an extra $60 and bringing you to the aforementioned grand total. Signing up for this will require you to bring your own phones or pay full price for a handful of new ones. Subsidizing each of your four new phones with a 2-year contract will bring your monthly bill to $260. It’s also important to remember throughout all of this that Next can make a phone even more expensive over time than a standard 2-year agreement, so proceed with caution.

Verizon

Known for ages as the carrier least likely to offer discounts, even Verizon has now appeared to have seen the light, offering a discounted family plan for its Edge customers. For those not in the know, Verizon Edge is a Next-like program that allows you to upgrade your device early — as long as you’ve paid your phone down 60 percent, that is — and spread out your payments out over 20 months instead of paying it all at once.

VerizonBecause Verizon Edge customers get a monthly discount of $25 per phone for shared data plans of 10 GB (or higher), that brings the monthly total for a family of four to $160 for 10 shared gigs. By comparison, Verizon’s More Everything plan without Verizon Edge would run the same family $260 per month for the same amount (10 GB) of shared data. Take a look at the fine print before you sign up, though,  because there’s a clause that states that $160 doesn’t include “monthly Verizon Edge device fees,” which is basically the monthly installment cost for each of those four new smartphones. Like Next, Edge can result in pricier payments over time.

It’s also worth noting that, like Sprint and AT&T, Big Red is also increasing the amount of data in its non-10 GB data plans until October 31. These are available to both new and existing customers, and range from $110 per month for what’s now 15 GB (usually 12 GB) to $375 per month for 100 GB (usually 50 GB).

And the Winners Are…

Sprint TMobileT-Mobile and Sprint are the obvious choices for families who want to lower their monthly bills. But Sprint edges out T-Mobile by virtue of the fact that it’s doubled the data from 10 GB to 20 GB for the same price. AT&T and Verizon offer lots of data and ostensibly stronger networks, but the other two are improving (especially in the case of T-Mobile), and the values they provide are just too great to be denied.

Of course, everything depends on where you are in each company’s respective service coverage maps, so be sure to do your homework on that too. Otherwise, you may find yourself testing out the speed of payout for those ETF reimbursements when you jump ship.

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