NEW YORK — In revamping its prices and plans this week, Sprint is joining Verizon and AT&T in letting families share pools of data.
The new Sprint plans are available starting Friday and reward families that need a lot of data. But the company is also keeping an unlimited-data plan that's beneficial for individuals — and competes with a similar T-Mobile offering.
Now that most Americans have cellphones, wireless companies have been trying to lure consumers with lower prices. And to increase revenue from existing customers, the carriers have been pushing services with higher data allotments.
To help guide you through the maze of options from the four national wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — here's a look at the best plans for individuals, couples and families of four.
First, a few things to keep in mind:
• The price you pay for mobile service should be only one factor. In my travels, I was more likely to get high-speed data service with AT&T and Verizon, especially in rural areas. T-Mobile has improved in many cities. Sprint is still catching up. A plan with a large data allotment won't mean much if you can't use it. Also, if you travel a lot, only T-Mobile offers free data roaming outside the U.S.
• The prices I compare here are for voice, text and data services only and do not include the cost of the phone. Taxes and fees are also extra, as well as one-time charges to activate service.
• The best deals tend to require that you buy a phone at full price or bring your own phone. Buying a phone means paying $600 or more up front for a high-end phone or spreading that out in monthly installments.
With Verizon, you must participate in its Edge installment plan to qualify. Rates for voice, text and data services go up if you buy a subsidized phone for about $200 with a two-year contract. For a high-end phone, you're still typically better off accepting the subsidies and paying the higher service rates if you upgrade right at the two-year mark.
Individuals: Verizon and Sprint have great prices for individuals, who typically need 2 gigabytes of data per month. Unsubsidized plans are available for $50 a month and include unlimited calls and texts.
With AT&T, you pay $65. T-Mobile doesn't have a 2 GB plan. It offers 1 GB for $50 and 3 GB for $60.
With Verizon, avoid its flagship More Everything plan if you're an individual needing 2 gigabytes. Verizon offers single-line 2 GB plans through More, but for $80. Ask for the special plan for individuals, which is just called Single Line Plan.
But if you need something other than 2 GB or have tablets to add with Verizon, you're stuck with More. And this special plan is billed as promotional, so Verizon might yank it anytime.
Verizon and Sprint are also the best for subsidized plans with 2 GB — $60 with Verizon and $65 with Sprint. AT&T's costs $80. T-Mobile no longer offers subsidized phones.
Sprint and T-Mobile are the only carriers still offering unlimited data to new customers. Sprint's is $60 for an individual, while T-Mobile's is $80. Both plans are unsubsidized. Sprint's deal is particularly good, as it's just $10 more than the 2 GB plan, though make sure you live where Sprint has good service.
Technically, all T-Mobile plans are unlimited, but the company reduces your speeds greatly after you hit the allotment. The unlimited plan offers unlimited data at 4G LTE speeds, the fastest available today.
Couples: Sprint has the best deal for two-line plans that offer 4 gigabytes to share. It's $90 a month if you buy or bring your phone. With subsidies, it's $120 — the same that AT&T charges for two-line, unsubsidized plans. Verizon charges even more, $130. With both AT&T and Verizon, subsidized plans cost $150 for two lines.
It gets complicated with T-Mobile. The company offers discounts for multiple phones, but it doesn't let those phones share data. Each phone gets its own allotment. To get 4 GB, you can put one phone on a 1 GB plan and the other on 3 GB. That will cost $90 combined — same as Sprint, but without the sharing flexibility. If 1 GB isn't enough, it's $100 for both phones to get 3 GB each.
Sprint is also better for unlimited plans — at $120, compared with $140 with T-Mobile.
Family of four: Sprint is able to offer a good deal here — not on price, but on the amount of data it offers. For $160 a month, unsubsidized customers share 20 gigabytes with Sprint and 10 gigabytes with AT&T and Verizon. With subsidies, it's $100 more a month with all three carriers.
As a promotion, customers switching to Sprint by Sept. 30 get additional discounts until the end of 2015, bringing the 20 GB unsubsidized plan to $100. You can have up to 10 people sharing that for the same price.
It might sound like a good deal, but if you're paying for the phone in installments, the monthly payments will continue past the end of the promotion, making it difficult to switch to a rival then.
Also, remember that double the data allotment means nothing if you can't use it. AT&T and Verizon still have better networks. Plus, 20 gigabytes is more than many families will need, unless you're doing a lot of online gaming or video streaming without Wi-Fi. A two-hour movie, for instance, can easily consume more than a gigabyte.
Don't need 20 gigabytes? Sprint offers 8 GB and 12 GB plans, though both are more expensive than the 20 GB plans for those who buy or bring their own phone. For those on subsidized plans, it's cheaper to go with less data.
If you exclude Sprint's promotion, which existing Sprint customers aren't eligible for, T-Mobile has the best price. A family of four can pay $100 for 2.5 GB each — a total of 10 GB. But the allotment drops to 1 GB each after next year, and those 10 gigabytes aren't sharable.
For unlimited plans, Sprint loses its pricing advantage, as it doesn't offer multiline discounts. The family pays $240 on Sprint and $220 on T-Mobile.