There are four major 3G cellular carriers in the United States -- Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile -- and if you watch American television, you know that they're engaged in an all-out advertising war. As the ads like to remind you, your smartphone is only as good as your network. But it's nearly impossible to dig through all of the marketing hype to figure out which network has the best coverage and the fastest download speeds.
In the spirit of consumer reporting, both Wired.com and PC World conducted surveys and network tests recently to gauge the relative speed and reliability of the major 3G networks. The PC World research is the most scientifically rigorous, relying on software to record the connection speeds and network reliability at 283 testing locations within 13 large U.S. cities. The PC World tests only include Verizon, Sprint and AT&T, since T-Mobile had not yet offered 3G service as of April 2009.
According to PC World's results, Verizon boasts the best overall reliability and speed of the bunch. Verizon 3G connections provided uninterrupted service 89.8 percent of the time with an average download speed of 951 kbps across the country. The fastest individual location was New Orleans at 1425 kbps [source: Sullivan].
Sprint had slightly higher reliability -- 90.5 percent -- but showed an average overall download speed of 808 kilobits per second (kbps). Out west, however, Sprint beat out the competition for speed in cities like Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle [source: Sullivan]. AT&T had competitive speed numbers -- averaging 812 kbps overall -- but dismal reliability ratings, establishing an uninterrupted connection only 68 percent of the time [source: Sullivan].
Wired conducted a survey by which individual smartphone users could measure the speed of their network connection and report back their findings. Over 15,000 users from all four 3G carriers posted their results. Again, Verizon took the prize with users reporting average download speeds of 1,940 kbps. T-Mobile came in second with 1,793 kbps. Third was Sprint with 1,598 and AT&T was dead last with 901 kbps [source: Chen].
If you live far out in a rural area, your network choice might be limited by coverage. And if you simply must have the iPhone, you're stuck with AT&T, since Apple has an exclusive contract with the cellular provider. Blackberry models are available on just about every big and small 3G network, including the big four: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile. The same applies to Windows Mobile devices. Android phones, although much more limited in model selection, are now carried by each of the four major players as well.
OK, now that we have the carrier question squared away, let's move on to the mobile business software applications that will make you more productive away from the office.