This post is an unscientific spot test I did of Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile providers in the greater Sandpoint, Idaho area.
What’s the best mobile provider in North Idaho?
- Verizon, by far, has the best network coverage, but it is oversold and slows to a crawl at times.
- T-Mobile is the only network with usable 5G in Sandpoint, is the fastest, and the best at penetrating buildings.
- AT&T had the worst signal of the three, especially inside buildings or in rural areas. But has the best-prepaid plan if you frequent Canada or Mexico.
Summary of Wireless Performance
Verizon is king when it comes to coverage around here. There is no 5G, but LTE is everywhere; it’s fast and has low latency. I may find a dead spot here and there, but I rarely find an area where AT&T or T-Mobile has better coverage. Verizon is oversold in this area.
T-Mobile – 5G
T-Mobile is the fastest and has the best building/forest penetration but less coverage. T-Mobile has made huge investments in equipment. It almost always connects at 5G or 5GUC around town. But in addition to the high-frequency bands, it has in its arsenal the lowest band of all mobile providers, band 71 at 600MHz. I’m guessing this gives T-Mobile a 5-10% advantage over Verizon and AT&T’s 700 and 800MHz bands. T-Mobile lacks the same coverage as Verizon and AT&T, but it can and does roam on AT&T’s network (striped areas in the map below) in these parts. This means if you are on T-Mobile, you also get the coverage of AT&T.
AT&T has wide coverage, but a number of dead areas compared to Verizon and T-Mobile. I was so surprised at how bad it was; I tested and retested but got the same poor results. I also confirmed my findings with friends who use AT&T. The coverage in this area is not as good as AT&T’s map suggests. The map may say I’m in the middle of 5G, but as soon as I step inside a building, I’ll see “no service.” Most visitors to my house on AT&T ask to get on my WiFi. The federal government recently awarded AT&T a $7 billion FirstNet contract, so I wasn’t expecting to find poor rural coverage considering the FirstNet network is supposed to be used by First Responders. I suspect AT&T is still working on their FirstNet network, and we should see some improvements soon.
Invariably someone always claims they get no coverage where I get plenty, and the answer is usually that they’re using an old phone, a phone designed for the wrong carrier, or a cheap cell phone that doesn’t support all the bands on that network. I suggest using the latest Pixel or iPhone. Don’t buy them from a carrier, but directly from Google or Apple. All my testing was with a newer iPhone 13, which supports the newest bands on all three networks. The latest Pixel phones will get similar results.
Also, my testing methodology is unscientific. I didn’t always have time to get into diagnostic mode to see what frequencies things were running on, so sometimes I provide that info, sometimes not.
Test Location Results
1. My House
- ✔️ Verizon – 7/1 Mbps LTE. 800MHz.
- ✔️ T-Mobile -52/3 Mbps – takes the win, 5G UC (Ultra Capacity). Swaps to 600Mhz in the back rooms of the house.
- ❌ AT&T – “No service” I have to walk outside to get a usable signal. The AT&T map shows my house is in the middle of 5G coverage. The map is accurate if I’m standing on the roof, then I get 800MHz coverage. This isn’t a usable signal for me since I don’t usually hop on the roof to make phone calls.
- ✔️ Verizon works great, LTE.
- ✔️ T-Mobile connects at 5G or LTE in some spots.
- ✔️ AT&T works great. LTE.
- ✔️ Verizon connects on LTE, works fantastic.
- ✔️ T-Mobile connects at 5G but is slower than Verizon.
- ❌ AT&T connects at 5G or LTE (1 bar), but the internet is slow. Again, the coverage map shows it’s in the middle of a 5G coverage area.
4. Round Lake
- ✔️ Verizon – (I lost the test results, but it was the fastest).
- ✔️ T-Mobile 29/17 – Connects at 5G.
- ✔️ AT&T – 8/1 – LTE.
5. Hayden inside a building
- ✔️ Verizon 108/3 – had the fastest speed on LTE.
- ✔️ T-Mobile 30/1 – second fastest, LTE.
- ✔️ AT&T 8/13 – had the best signal 5G – 5 bars. and best upload.
6. The Dump
- ✔️ Verizon – Fast
- ⚠️ T-Mobile – So, T-Mobile had no coverage here but automatically roamed onto AT&T’s network and seemed to be plenty fast.
- ✔️ AT&T – Fastest
7. Off the highway North of town
- ⚠️ Verizon – slow but usable.
- ⚠️ T-Mobile – slow but usable.
- ❌ AT&T – no signal (sometimes will briefly get 1-bar).
Some of my Favorite Prepaid Plans
I’m a fan of paying as little as possible for cell coverage; here are some plans to consider on all three networks:
- US Mobile (Verizon MVNO) – Best Coverage
- $9/month – unlimited talk, text, $2/per GB data (shared in a pool of multiple lines). US Mobile is unique from all other Verizon MVNOs in that it has prioritized Verizon data and access to some of Verizon’s US roaming partners.
- T-Mobile Prepaid Connect – Best speed and 5G coverage. Up to 100MB/month on US domestic roaming partners (usually AT&T) when outside T-Mobile’s coverage.
- $10/month – unlimited talk, text, and 1GB of data.
- $15/month – unlimited talk, text, and 3GB of data.
- AT&T Prepaid– While it didn’t do well for me up here, AT&T has great overall coverage in North America (especially in the Northeastern United States). Also, it’s a great plan if you frequent Canada/Mexico. AT&T is one of the only options that will allow permanent roaming in Canada/Mexico. This is one of the best plans to use if you live in Canada or Mexico some of the time.
- $300/year – unlimited talk, text, data (16GB fast speed). Unlimited roaming/calling in Canada and Mexico.
- There are no refunds, so be sure to test AT&T and make sure you’re happy with it.
There you have it. Of course, the networks may perform differently depending on your location. Always test before committing to a particular mobile provider. When people ask me what network is best, I always tell them Verizon has the best coverage overall. But T-Mobile has certainly made huge improvements.
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
— Proverbs 16:24