The real difference between Verizon and AT&T

There's been a lot of controversy recently about the recent announcement that Verizon will now be selling the iPhone. While hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of users switched from AT&T to Verizon when the iPhone first came out, it's not clear as to if, or why, we should switch to Verizon. The truth is that there are many differences in the technology behind each of these companies that will greatly effect how you decide where to stay.

First of all, I'd like to say that all of my information comes from a time when I worked at a retail store selling Verizon phones, and then eventually Cingular (which was purchased by AT&T) phones later. There's a mass confusion about the technologies and which one is "faster" and which one covers more area, and the truth is that they're almost dead even in both aspects. The bottom line comes down to a few points.

AT&T has more 3G cellular towers then any other provider in the US. Verizon has more overall towers then any other provider in the US. That means while you're more likely to have 3G coverage by AT&T, you're more likely to have any cellular reception by Verizon. Obviously this depends on where you are, but in general Verizon targets to have the most ground coverage, and AT&T targets where people live.

Signal Frequencies
As a fundamental law of physics, lower frequency signals tend to penetrate solid objects, while higher frequency signals tend to bounce off of them. Which is better is really a matter of opinion, and terrain, but there are some undeniable facts.

Verizon uses lower frequencies which tend to penetrate solid objects better. AT&T uses higher frequency signals wich tend to bounce off of solid objects better.

A good example of where you can see this is in basements. In my college days, I was riding down an elevator talking on my cell phone. Since this was before the iPhone days, I was still on Verizon. Another passenger on the elevator was talking on his phone, which used Cingular (now AT&T). I knew that both towers were actually on the same exact building, about 5 yards apart, so this next step came as a surprise to both of us.

As soon as we passed into the basement (which was solid concrete plus a metal frame), he lost his call. I continued on my call the entire way through the basement, picked up my laundry, and returned to my dorm room while still on the call. The only difference was the carrier, and more specifically the frequency they use.

Multi-Tasking Compatibility
One of the biggest complaints that iPhone users will have of Verizon is that they can no longer talk on the phone while browsing the web, or using data of any kind. This is because Verizon towers do not let you connect to both their data network an their cellular network at the same time. Although Verizon has indicated that this should be fixed soon, it's almost unthinkable that you'd not be able to be on a call, hit your menu button, look something up, and talk about it with the person you're calling. This area clearly will need to be fixed before most iPhone users should switch.

Multi-Tower Compatibility
The biggest complaint that iPhone users had of AT&T was dropped calls. This is not due to the problem of the phone itself, but due to the technology that is provided by AT&T. Specifically, AT&T only allows any given phone to be connected to one tower at a time. Verizon phones, while only being allowed to connect to one network at a time, can be connected to up to 3 towers at any given time.

This functionality is known as soft handover, which essentially means that when you're driving down the road and switch which towers you're in range of, the Verizon phone is more likely to be able to handle the switchover, since it's already using 2 other towers.

Data Transfer Speeds
The last point I'm going to touch on here about AT&T vs Verizon is speed of the networks. Most of us are familiar with Cable internet, specifically that Cable uses a shared medium which means that the performance you get will be directly proportional to the number of people on your same line.

Cellular towers are no different. The more people on a given tower, the less overall throughput that tower will have. Although there's a difference in technology coming up with the new 4G networks, in general the more people in your area using your same network, the less throughput you'll have.