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Summary:

AT&T has cheaper plans, but Verizon has far better LTE coverage. As for speed, they match each other megabit per megabit — unless you happen to live in Chicago, Los Angeles or any city where AT&T’s networks are undersized.

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Updated. 3G and 4G tablets haven’t exactly been hot sellers since their introduction two years ago. Driven by the big markup for the extra radios as well as the cost of the mobile data plans, customers are gravitating to Wi-Fi-only iPads and Android tablets. Still, some of you may find the combination of LTE and iOS irresistible and have the pocketbook to afford it. But which iPad to buy, Verizon’s or AT&T’s? Here’s a quick primer on the differences between the two.

Speed: a tie, unless you live in Chicago or L.A.

In most cities, Verizon and AT&T’s network will be able to match each other megabit per megabit, and AT&T may have a slight advantage given that its LTE networks are still relatively free of customers. But in some markets AT&T’s 4G networks are a bit undersized, as they are limited to only 10 MHz of frequency bandwidth, while in other AT&T cities — and all of Verizon’s – the networks pack a full 20 MHz.

Speed tests from a Verizon LTE phone in NYC

GigaOM contributor and spectrum policy wonk Andrew Shepherd crunched some license data and found that AT&T has only 10 MHz in Chicago; Los Angeles; Oklahoma City; Charlotte, N.C.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Simply put, in those markets Verizon’s networks will be twice as fast.

That said, even AT&T’s pint-sized LTE networks are impressive. In a recent drive test in Chicago, AT&T was averaging 10 Mbps down and 6 Mbps up even on the highway and peaking at 20 Mbps while stationary, which should be more than enough to support any application on the iPad. But speed freaks take note: GigaOM readers have recorded Verizon 4G connections well over 60 Mbps in New York.

As for fallback networks, AT&T has Verizon beat, though don’t let the iPad’s shiny 21 Mbps and 42 Mbps HSPA+ specs fool you: AT&T’s HSPA service maxes out at 14.4 Mbps. That’s still more than four times faster than Verizon’s EV-DO, but then again, with Verizon’s network you won’t be falling back on 3G that often.

Coverage: point goes to Verizon

When the iPad goes on sale on Friday, it will have LTE covering more than 200 million people in every single major market and many of the smaller ones as well. By the year’s end, Verizon plans to cover 260 million people, leaving it only 30 million short of its covering its entire footprint.

AT&T's LTE markets are marked by the orange dots.

AT&T was late out of the gate, and as of its last estimates, it had 74 million people covered in 28 cities, though it is adding a bunch more in the coming months. Its end-of-year target is a footprint covering about half of the U.S. population.

It’s also important to note that while AT&T left some pretty big coverage gaps in its cities at launch, it appears to be rapidly filling them in. For instance, much of Chicago’s south side was without LTE when it first came online last year, but big chunks of it are now covered. The same goes for the Bay Area. Still, it’s a good idea to take a close look at both operators’ market-by-market coverage maps before you buy. You can find Verizon’s here and AT&T’s here.

Price: point goes to AT&T

While both carriers are selling the new iPads for about $130 more than Wi-Fi-only equivalents, they have different monthly data plan rates, and those costs can add up over the length of a year. AT&T’s mid-tier plan gives you 3 GB for $30, compared with Verizon’s 2 GB for the same price. For most smartphone users, that extra gig is extraneous, but in the world of tablet computing, it can go a long way.

For the heavy volume user, Verizon has a 10 GB plan for $80, while buying the equivalent amount of data from AT&T would cost $100. For the more conservative user, AT&T’s plans scale down to $15 per month, but that hardly seems worth it, given that you only get a measly 250 MB. If you go over your monthly allotment, both operators charge $10 per gigabyte.

Update: If you want to take advantage of the hotspot capabilities in the iPad, Verizon is your only choice for now. It allows you to tether other Wi-Fi devices to the iPad’s 4G connection at no extra charge. That doesn’t mean AT&T won’t offer hotspot capabilities in the future. It’s just a question of whether AT&T will require customers to sign up for an additional tethered data bucket as it does with smartphones.

As for complete mobile broadband freedom, neither one of these operators is going to let you make the wheels rip on your new iPad, unless you’re willing to pay dearly for it. While LTE connectivity is going to be a nice perk for those who buy it, its faster speeds mean consumers will be eating through their plans at rapid clips. So count on spending a lot of time on Wi-Fi with your new 4G iPad.

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  1. So the answer is: Verizon if you can afford it, wifi if you can’t.

  2. How about contracts? Are the iPads still contract free, month to month? Also I heard that Verizon is allowing hotspot on the lte iPad for no additional charge.

    1. The plans are still month-to-month, and Verizon does include WiFi sharing in its monthly fee.

    2. Oops, you’re right, Chris and Steven. I neglected to include the hotspot info, which is a bonus for Verizon, though it can’t be too kind to battery life — guess that’s what that mega-battery pack is for. I’m updating the post.

  3. Great post.

    After comparing coverage maps, we decided to go with Verizon for the greater LTE footprint. But it is a close call – AT&T’s “4G” is in practice nearly as fast, and if we can move the unlimited SIM over from our iPad 2 that would be amazing.

    We did a blog post yesterday using our app ‘Coverage?’ to directly overlay and compare AT&T and Verizon’s LTE and “4G” coverage maps. Screenshots posted here:
    http://www.technomadia.com/2012/03/verizon-vs-att-4g-lte-networks/

    FYI – if you want to do your own coverage map comparisons, you can get the app here:
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/coverage/id388815949?mt=8

  4. How about for overseas 4G LTE use?

    I know there aren’t a whole lot of 700mhz 4g LTE networks deployed worldwide but when there is (in Canada/Australia & UK for example) which iPad version will work – the version or AT&T?

    I read that their on slightly different frequency bands – both in 700(-800Mhz) but on different ends of the spectrum block. Any idea which implementation is more standard?

    Another way of asking it is which 4G LTE version is apple selling in Canada/Australia and UK – there doesn’t seem to be any info as they all seem to have just a single 700Mhz standard frequency band

    1. Apple is only selling one iPad 4G model in the UK, and I have read on respectable review sites such as Computer World that it is the same as the AT&T 4G model on sale in the USA. I think this is the same model on sale across Europe and probably beyond. So the AT&T 4G is the better bet if you want 4G available when you travel abroad. However, I understand that both the AT&T and the Verizon 4G models have backwards 3G compatibility so both will work with foreign GSM & CDMA 3G networks. Hope this helps!

      1. Hi Tom,

        Yep, Apple is selling the AT&T model in Europe, and it will have all of the HSPA+ radios necessary to access those networks. That version won’t work on European LTE networks though, since it doesn’t have LTE support at either 900, 1800, 2600 MHz. Unless Apple comes out with a new version for the European launch.

  5. “For the more conservative user, AT&T’s plans scale down to $15 a month, but that hardly seems worth it, given that you only get a measly 250 MB.”

    The conservative user would probably be better served by Verizon’s $20 for 1GB option.

  6. Samuel Espinoza Gomez Thursday, March 15, 2012
  7. I don’t understand why someone would use more data just by having a 4G connection.

    If you browse the same 20 websites and stream the same content, you’ll end up using the same amount of data whether the connection is 3G or 4G.

    To say that someone would use up their data limit faster on a 4G connection is saying that they are having to wait so long on a 3G connection that it is limiting the total amount of content they can consume online during the month. Is that really the case?

    1. Kevin Fitchard Don Sunday, March 18, 2012

      Hi Don,

      No, you’re right. There’s nothing inherent in 4G that makes it consume more data than 3G. BUT when presented with a faster connection, people tend to fill it by using applications that can utilize the full capacity of the pipe. The iPad is capable of receiving some tremendously high-quality video for instance, which really can’t be supported on your run-of-the-mill 3G connection. LTE has no problem delivering that video, but since data prices haven’t changed between 3G and 4G, it means using that application will eat up your data plan far faster.

  8. John Harrington, Jr. Monday, March 19, 2012

    Whichever you decide to go with, if you’re bringing it to work, you need to be careful. It’s just as easy to rack up data on an iPad enabled by either carrier. Read how mobile expense management (MEM) factors in to any bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy: http://bit.ly/FWDudt

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