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Comparing the data plans on the big four carriers

With AT&T announcing new GoPhone data pricing, it’s time to take another look at what the big four carriers are offering in terms of prepaid data. The industry is obviously growing, and big carriers are catching onto that. Even Verizon has grown savvy; next week they’ll unveil an $80 smartphone with a new data plan. So, which one of T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon provides the best deals for consumers?

AT&T

We just learned of AT&T’s new plans this week, so let’s start there. Remember, users must be on a $25 or $50 monthly plan in order to buy a data package, so we’re working with that baseline. Data plans are as follows:

$5: 50MB
$15: 200MB
$25: 1GB

Add in the $25 plan, which provides unlimited messaging plus 250 minutes, with additional minutes costing 10 cents each, or the $50 unlimited talk and text plan. that means a minimum of $30 per month and a maximum of $75.

Verizon

It’s tough to tell what Verizon will do. They will introduce a 1GB data plan to go along with their $80 smartphone, so that will change things. But for now they do have unlimited talk, text, and mobile web for $50, which is a better value than AT&T thanks to the web part. Unfortunately, they do not have many phones that take strong advantage of the web, though that seems by design.

For now we only have the $50 plan. If the 1GB data plan checks in at $25, as with AT&T’s, Verizon and AT&T will be in line. I’d bank on that happening. Still, AT&T does have the lower-tier options, which might work better for lighter data users.

T-Mobile

A look at T-mobile phone plans will reveal a large selection of prepaid plans. T-Mobile has made prepaid a focus as it loses postpaid customers, and in many ways it has been a success. While they have their old pay-as-you-go plans, that’s not where you’ll find the data. You’ll have to look for their Monthly 4G plans for that.

Their $30 through $70 plans all include unlimited data, but that includes only a certain amount at 4G speeds. Here’s the breakdown:

$70: 5GB
$60: 2GB
$50: 100MB
$30: 5GB

The $30 plan includes just 100 voice minutes, and is available as a partnership with Wal Mart. The high end of this looks much better than AT&T, as it provides five times the data for $5 less per month. The $70 plan is also the best value among T-Mobile’s unlimited plans, since it provides 3GB more than the $60 plan for just $10 more per month.

T-Mobile’s pay-per-day plans also come with 200MB to 2GB of 4G web per month, but they can cost plenty. At $3 per day you’re looking at $90 per month, so these are clearly for infrequent users.

Sprint

Sprint carries two prepaid brands: Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Both have a relatively strong focus on data.

Boost has its $50 unlimited plan, which includes unlimited data. The only catch is to use the phones that can best utilize data — i.e., Android phones — cost $5 more per month. Still $55 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data, with the possibility of lowering that to $40 per month with 18 on-time payments, makes Boost a wonderful value. For that price with AT&T you’d get just 50MB of data.

Virgin has some value deals, especially for light talkers. Like T-Mobile they have a cheap plan, $35 for unlimited data and messaging, plus 300 minutes. That’s $5 more than T-Mobile, but it does provide 150 additional minutes. Of course, the data is capped at 2.5GB at full speed, so you’re getting half the data. They also have $45 and $55 unlimited plans that add more minutes.

Their payLo plans do come with a level of data, but it’s either very expensive ($1.50 per megabyte, which is more than $10,000 per gigabyte), or inadequate (30MB with their talk & text plan).

In looking at these plans, it appears that Boost and T-Mobile have the best options for data users. T-Mobile has a wide range of plans, which helps. Boost has its one $55 plan, which is both affordable and feature-rich. Verizon aims to make a comeback with its $80 smartphone, but that won’t be any better than AT&T’s 1GB data plan. Still, that Verizon includes unlimited web in their $50 unlimited plan gives them a leg up for light data users.

Is it surprising that the smallest networks have the best plans? Probably not.