November 12, 2013

Are the Big Phone Carriers 'Good Enough' These Days?

Last week, I got my hands on the brand new Nexus 5, and, as you might expect, I've been quite happy with it. The screen is fantastic. The size and weight are perfect, and the battery life is beyond anything I've had so far. But this isn't a post about the Nexus 5. It's about what I also switched when I changed phones - my carrier.

In the process of moving from my aging 2011 Galaxy Nexus on Verizon, I'm now on T-Mobile. This means in the space of five or so years, I've gone from an iPhone on AT&T, to an HTC Evo and Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint, to the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon and now the Nexus 5 on T-Mobile. You could say I've tried all the big carriers here in the US, and experienced their positives and negatives. And in my experience, what they deliver, for the most part, is good enough.

Those of us who were early adopters on the first iPhone here in the US remember that AT&T was the only option - and the service's flakiness was well-chronicled. Many thousands of words were spent in blog posts here and elsewhere decrying AT&T's seeming inability to scale up to the unprecedented data demands brought on by the iPhone. (See: Thoughts on AT&T: What Steve Jobs Should Have Written) Calls that would complete without dropping, even with both parties staying completely still, seemed impossible, and it wasn't unusual for the first words after calling back were something to the effect of "Stupid AT&T".

Moving to Sprint for me was as much a function of switching to Android from iOS as it was leaving AT&T. In 2010 I was making a bet on momentum, app choice and quality, and that choice looks to have played out correctly. But when my family moved across town, we unhelpfully ended up in a place where Sprint coverage was not great - meaning most of my successful calls would have to be made in the backyard. For a year, that was just fine, and we made do - especially as most of the time, we use our phones for data, including email or texts, than we do with phone calls.

In 2011, I switched to Verizon when the Galaxy Nexus came up, and data/voice have been very good. No complaints. But they weren't a partner on the Nexus 5 launch, and while I had considered either going Moto X on Verizon, or keeping my creaky Galaxy Nexus around just a bit longer, I wanted to take another experiment and move to T-Mobile. As Pokemon was best known for saying: "Gotta Catch 'em All!"

Prior to making the switch, I polled people in person and many whom I didn't (via Twitter), to see how they rated their own carrier, on a 1-10 scale, and what mobile OS they were using. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people rated their carrier with a score of 8 out of 10 or above. I had expected to see a lot of lower scores, and to see some trends play out, be it low scores for AT&T on iOS, or lower scores for the smaller carriers, specifically T-Mobile and Sprint. But by and large, people seemed pretty happy - leading me to wonder openly if the only safe business to be universally disliked is that of airlines - who never get any credit.

At the time, my curiosity was as much tied to MotoMaker for the Moto X launching first with AT&T. Was AT&T good enough again to be forgiven for their 2008-10 era quality gap? Could I possibly think of getting back with AT&T after all the frustration I'd seen? I saw people on iOS, Windows Phone and Android all giving AT&T scores above 7, and those from other carriers also being quite favorable. There were no clear laggards.

So when the Nexus 5 came available on Google Play, my internal debate over how to move forward was a pretty simple one. I saw that T-Mobile's LTE coverage includes my work and home. I saw the pricing for T-Mobile was in line (and actually a bit cheaper) than Verizon, and practically the only risk I'd be taking is if it was weak when I traveled outside of my usual stomping grounds. And so far... no complaints.

There's no question that as more and more of us as consumers and businesspeople are expecting more from our smartphones and tablets, that the demands we're putting on our telecommunications infrastructure is dramatically increasing. We've gone from a society that exchanged voice calls and simple texts to one where we expect full HD video and streaming live audio. We expect high speed access on all our devices, practically everywhere.

To build and support that demand, all the carriers are racing to be sure they're not the one who ends up left behind, as all the smart consumers end up attached to the market leaders. It's been a long time since I've read a great rant on AT&T, or seen a wave of people reporting dropped calls. Verizon's commercials promise the widest LTE available, and they do have "the map for that", but the alternatives seem to keep up in users' eyes. So maybe, just maybe, we've hit a turning point when the carriers are pretty good, and the user experience is going to get even better as our hardware improves and the mobile software gets even more excellent. I'm glad we've gotten this far.

Usual Disclosures: I work for Google. Google builds Android, and shaped the Nexus 5. I initially received my first HTC Evo free from Google I/O 2010 before I joined the company. This post isn't aimed to indicate any bias or favor to any Google partners. That'd be silly.