Sprint Is Upgrading Its Network Here, When Should I Upgrade My Phone?

Erica and her family are Sprint customers who are eligible to upgrade their phones in a few months, but they have a dilemma. In the market where they live, Sprint’s 4G service is the older WiMax network. An upgrade to LTE is coming…sometime in the next year. They have their choice of phones that can use one network or the other, but not both. Yes, this is the very definition of a first world problem, but it’s a gamble. Do they choose faster data now and being forced to use 3G after the upgrade comes, or the other way around?

I need some advice. As I’m sure many Consumerist readers are aware, Sprint is in the process of extending their 4G LTE coverage and dismantling their 4G WiMax network. My family’s plan is eligible for upgraded phones on 11/1, and we’re more than eager to get rid of our old crappy LG Optimus S’s (which were free back in January 2011, yet Sprint is STILL trying to pawn them off on customers). But we’re in a bit of a dilemma — we’re not among the 100 markets Sprint announced as getting LTE “in the next few months,” so the only 4G in our area is WiMax. There are no Sprint phones that work on both the WiMax and LTE networks.

So we can either get already-outdated WiMax phones that will revert to being 3G-only as soon as LTE is rolled out in our area (which could be anytime between a few months from now and late 2013), or we can pay $200 for spiffy LTE phones that will be 3G-only until LTE is in our area — meaning they might not work at their full potential until we’re almost eligible for the next upgrade anyway. Of course Sprint will give no indication whatsoever when LTE will be rolled out in any particular market.

We looked at switching carriers, but with activation fees, anyone else would be more expensive over the life of the contract, and all but T-Mobile wouldn’t include unlimited data. The only thing cheaper would be Verizon since I can get a discount through work, but looking at reviews, I discovered they lock out all of the best features of the Samsung Galaxy S III I’m really interested in (like Google Wallet).

What should we do to get screwed over the least? Buy the better phones and hope they last more than 20 months? Keep the old crappy phones until we know when we can get LTE (which would also save us $40/month in the meantime thanks to Sprint’s “premium data fee”)? “Upgrade” to slightly less-crappy 3G phones and not worry about WiMax vs. LTE? Or give Sprint the middle finger and deal with Verizon locking out phone features?

I’d appreciate any advice the Consumerist hive mind can come up with! Thanks!

What would you do, Consumerists?

Comments

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  1. Blueskylaw says:

    Unless your life depends on needing “faster” data, save your money and use the phones until they no longer function. Don’t get caught up in the viscious cycle of needing the latest, greatest, and shiniest new thing out there.

    • ZachPA says:

      You must not have read the part about her family’s phones all being LG Optimus S’s. They barely functioned to begin with, and then Sprint rolled out a buggy Gingerbread OTA update that broke so many of them that they pulled the update. Forever Froyo.

      It’s probably been mentioned elsewhere in the comments, but the Verizon Galaxy S III is fully unlocked now, thanks to a Play Store app. This means OP can install Google Wallet without much fuss.

      • RoguePisigit says:

        Thanks so much, that’s good to know! Do you happen to know the name of the app? Oh, and after my and my husband’s phones had to be rolled back to Froyo, we were later forced into the sucky Gingerbread update again anyway. My car’s bluetooth no longer works with my phone at all. These were ours and my parents’ first smartphones, and even though they were the best thing available for free at the time, I feel so guilty for choosing them for everybody.

  2. gregivq says:

    There are numerous articles and threads about Sprint’s horrible commitment to deadlines and improving their network. I live in Chicago where you’d think they would prioritize their network upgrades, however, with the most recent upgrades 3G data speeds went from .50 Mbps to .05 Mbps. Most of my phone calls go straight to voice mail of have incredibly annoying static. After FCC and BBB complaints all I got was a $20 credit towards my bill (2 smartphone lines). This scheduled network upgrade took place in the end of June, that was 5 months after their first deadline. Like I already said, this upgrade made things worse. Now, I am waiting for more upgrades which are scheduled to be completed in the end of the year. I encourage everyone to run away from Sprint. If you’d like to wait for 4G LTE know that it will be a long wait while you’ll enjoy dial-up speeds.

  3. cactus jack says:

    I upgrade once a year usually from my own negligence. Damn clothes washer, sidewalk, and basement floor costing me money all the time.

    Anyway, you’ll want an LTE phone sometime between now and the 2 years your contract will be up. Just wait until you find something you really are nerd-sperging about and go for it.

  4. tooki says:

    I’d get a new iPhone on Verizon or AT&T, depending on which is better in your area! Dealing with a network migration shouldn’t have to be the customer’s problem.

    • tooki says:

      And I say iPhone specifically because Verizon doesn’t block any features on that phone. AT&T blocks FaceTime on most data plans. Grrrr…

      • sn1per420 says:

        Seeing as how she’s interested in Google Wallet, I don’t think a phone without NFC is going to cut it…

  5. self reightous people suck says:

    I live in DFW and we have both Wi-max and LTE. I happen to have 1 of each phones and they both work at 4G speeds.
    It is my understanding that they are not going to be dropping Wi-Max cold turkey right away when they switch. You should be safe with either kind of coverage. Although they are not expanding Wi-Max coverage, they are not going to drop it as soon as they get LTE in the area.

  6. MaxH42 needs an edit button says:
  7. JoeJackson says:

    If I were OP I’d go for the LTE phone, for two things, hardware for LTE phones will be newer, and also for compatibility. If OP plans to travel outside it’s network, he could run into problems.

    HSPA + is plenty fast for 99% of people. Who needs 70Mbit internet on a cell phone? And on top of that, you don’t even use LTE during cell calls, so the sound quality is going to be the same.

    Take the hit on the speed for today, and reap the benefits later, instead of getting something quick today, and being disappointed later. I would also assume that in the town the OP is in, more people are on WIMAX “4G”, so when they switch to 3G network the network will be more congested, and be slower, and harder on the battery.

  8. tasselhoff76 says:

    I went through this exact decision process recently. My girlfriend and I ended up going to Verizon because we were tired of waiting and Verizon had better coverage (plus we saved a little based on our limited data usage). If we had stayed with Sprint, we would have waited for the LTE to roll out in our area prior to upgrading.

    • Not Given says:

      How do you find which carrier really has the best coverage for data (not what their map says) in your area? I google for reviews of providers in my area and all I find are people bitching about how slow EDGE is. I know AT&T and T-mo are out. My son has had both and when he can even use data here it’s one bar.

  9. huadpe says:

    If you’re looking to stay on the Sprint network, I’d check out Ting instead. They’ll be much cheaper in the long run and still have the same network access.

    • the1joe says:

      I second this advice to check out Ting, if I wasn’t in a contract right now I would definitely switch (and still might when the numbers work right). Ting runs on the Sprint network and now includes 4G LTE when it becomes available in your area. They do not charge an extra $10 fee for smartphones (which, btw, you’ll have to pay if you go for an older device too, this is for any smart phone, not just LTE). If you’re out of contract or the numbers add up to buy it out definitely check this company out! You have to buy your device outright but the monthly charges are very reasonable and you only have to pay for what you actually need.

    • RoguePisigit says:

      Thanks, I’ll check it out!

  10. BlkSwanPres says:

    Just stay with sprint, the $10 data fee is for all smart phones, so even if you upgraded to another 3g only phone you would still have to pay it. You will be much happier with a GSIII or an Evo 4G LTE on Sprint than you ever would be on Verizon. I left them 2 years ago and have never looked back.

  11. The hand that feeds, now with more bacon says:

    Geez. Buy a used WiMax phone (the original EVO 4G is not a bad choice). It costs nothing to change the line over to the new phone. Root it and install a tethering app or custom rom that supports tethering. (I believe there is a 1-click application for Windows that can root the EVO.) You could use your upgrade on a brand new WiMax phone but you will regret it if you get LTE nearby in the near future.

    In WiMax areas, turn on the tethering app and everyone else in the family can connect via WiFi on whatever phone they have/want.

    • CappyCobra says:

      Exactly buy a cheap wimax phone off of ebay. I got an Epic 4G for like $130 a year ago when my Moment bit the dust. Just checking ebay today and that phone can be had for $60.

      Also, Wimax is not going away. Any existing wimax setups are going to migrate Nextel/Virgin Mobile over. Any sprint customers still rocking wimax are fine. They just wont sell the devices in time but the towers will remain. Just dont expect any NEW towers :P

      • wastedlife says:

        You are correct:

        http://www.theverge.com/2011/12/1/2602797/clearwire-paying-its-bills-gets-new-wimax-and-lte-commitments-from

        They have extended until 2015, so yeah WiMax will continue to function at least until then. The OP can continue to use WiMax at least until then. Sprint’s 3g service is awful, but the price was good.

        Unfortunately, due to tower issues in my area that have been ongoing since April, I had to switch to Verizon to get working phone service, let alone data.

      • RoguePisigit says:

        Thanks, that’s really good to know! I think the info I’d gotten about WiMax’s lifespan was outdated (gotta love Sprint’s chat support human robots and their scripts). My husband doesn’t want to pay for a phone, but I’m a total gadget nerd, so it’s good to know we can get phones w/ different network capabilities and not be equally screwed in opposite ways.

  12. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    I can find no firm cite that WiMax is being shut down as LTE deploys. Sprint and Clearwire may have a network in trouble, but they are continuing to market it through the Clear name and prepaid wireless carriers.

    What sprint is shutting down is the ancient Nextel iDEN network.

    • flychinook says:

      This. I believe wimax is staying up for another two years, at least. I work for Sprint, so I’ll check at work tomorrow to be sure.

  13. foo1001 says:

    You are assuming that Sprint will immediately shut down the WiMax service when they turn on the LTE.

    Absent any specific evidence to the contrary, it would seem reasonable to assume that they will NOT. (Perhaps it might be worth it to ASK SPRINT about this?)

    If Sprint has not made any announcements, its probably best to assume that they will not be upgrading to LTE in your area in the next year at least.

  14. luxosaucer13 says:

    If the OP lives within US Cellular’s coverage area, my advice is to do what my company did: Jump ship from Sprint to US Cellular.

    Although US Cellular doesn’t offer unlimited data, our bill analysis showed that we didn’t really need or use “unlimited” data.

    US Cellular’s version of the GS 3 includes more LTE bands than does Sprint’s, so when LTE roaming becomes available, he’ll be able to roam on more LTE networks than Sprint’s version will allow.

    Our company has noticed several differences between Sprint’s and US Cellular’s network, not the least of which is far better coverage and faster data speeds. We also like the idea of only having to sign one 2-year contract per line, for the life of the account. We can then upgrade after 22 months at discount prices without having to renew a contract. Being able to use Google Wallet simply wasn’t worth having to endure Sprint’s lack of coverage and inept customer service.

  15. hexx says:

    Buy an LTE compatible phone now. You’ll only be able to use 3G until they upgrade the network, but while at home, work, and other places you can connect to WiFi for a faster connection.

  16. and_another_thing says:

    Breathe new life into those Optimus S phones with Cyanogenmod. You can go up to at least Gingerbread. My own Optimus of another flavor is running ICS.

  17. TravistyRobertoson says:

    Even when they upgrade to LTE they will not turn off WiMAX. It will be around for a couple of years after they stop selling WiMAX phones.

  18. Eccitaze says:

    “…So we can either get already-outdated WiMax phones that will revert to being 3G-only as soon as LTE is rolled out in our area…”

    That’s absolutely, 100% untrue. Sprint is maintaining the WiMAX Network until 2015. They’re not creating new towers but the old 4G network will remain.

    What you need to consider is this: Pretty much every 3G-only phone Sprint is releasing these days is budget-level (Kyocera Rise, LG Optimus Elite, etc.). Their mid-range level phones are usually 4G WiMAX (Galaxy s2, Epic 4G, Conquer, etc., etc.). Their only LTE offering below $149 is the LG Viper, which is a mid-range phone that runs 2.3 Gingerbread (i.e. not exactly a powerhouse). All of their top-level offerings (with the exception of the iPhone before the 5 comes out) are 4G LTE– the galaxy nexus, the photon Q, the s3, the evo 4G LTE.

    So unless you either switch carriers or switch to a different platform (which means basically switcing carriers–the only non-Sprint android smartphones are iphones, the HTC Arrive, or old and overpriced blackberries), your budget determines whether you get 3G, 4G Wimax, or 4G LTE.

    By the way, funny little thing I learned yesterday–the original blackberry curve? The old-ass 8330? Doesn’t require a data plan. At all. And if it’s not on a data plan, it (shouldn’t) get the $10 premium data addon either.

    Which is oddly appropriate since the 8330 is about on par with feature phones today, lol.

  19. quail20 says:

    It might be worth the $100 to jump ship from Sprint earlier than later. I do like their coverage when you’re in a big metropolitan area. But the Internet connections are hit or miss (mostly miss) when you’re not in their prime coverage zone. I say, buy a used iPhone when they flood the market soon and put in a SIM card for a no contract carrier that doesn’t use the Sprint network.

  20. Princess Beech loves a warm cup of treason every morning says:

    What my hubby did was keep the old plan with Wimax and add a new LTE phone into our plan for a low additional monthly charge. Once LTE is in full swing, we’ll then drop the Wimax line.

  21. Jimmy37 says:

    Are that gung-ho that you absolutely, positively have to get a brand-new phone and a brand-new contract in November? You can’t wait until LTE is in your area and then get a new phone? By then, you’ll probably be able to get an even better phone for the money.

    From your post, it seems you are really more interested in a new phone, regardless of who’s going to give it to you. I’ve seen the Samsung Galaxy S3 from Verizon, and it’s impressive.

  22. offtopic says:

    I am a Sprint customer and recently upgraded from my Evo (with Wimax 4G) to a Galaxy S 3 with LTE that is not yet working. I have not really noticed a big difference in data speed, in large part because most of the time I found that Wimax was not much faster that 3G. Streaming, web, skype and tethering have all performed almost as well on the Galaxy with 3G as it did on the Evo with Wimax.

    As for my Galaxy – I adore it. If you are thinking about an Android phone I’d look at both the Galaxy S 2 and 3 – the 2 if you are looking keep cost down and the 3 if you want the newest and shiniest on the market – both phones are terrific.

  23. RoguePisigit says:

    Thanks for all the advice everyone! I knew I could count on Consumerist Nation! I didn’t know WiMax would be around til 2015 or that the Verizon GSIII had been successfully unlocked. It also doesn’t make it easy that my whole family just says, “I don’t know, I trust you to pick something out for me” when asked what phones they want. *pulls hair out*

    • TD99 says:

      Hi Erica. I am in the EXACT same predicament as you. My wife and I both have the LG Optimus S. We also got ours in Jan. 2011 and so our contract expires on 11/1 too! I also intend on getting the Samsung Galaxy S3. Like I said, same predicament.

      I am in San Diego and therefore LTE isn’t going to be available for another year. I’m still OK with 3G performance though as I mostly use it for Pandora and rarely browse the web with it (because the screen is so tiny).

      That said, in summer 2011 I rooted & reflashed my Optimus S with RebornROM and then a few months ago I rooted and flashed both of our phones with HydroROM:

      http://forums.androidcentral.com/lg-optimus-s-rooting-roms-hacks/151016-rom-zvj-team-hydro-hydrorom-1-1-0-a.html

      I swear, replacing the Sprint factory ROM with an optimized home-brewed one is like night & day. It’s like a totally new phone now. Much faster (more responsive), no bloatware, free hot-spot capability (once you install FoxFi) and a lot more free internal RAM (from <10MB free to 100+MB free). Do give it a try. Or have one of your kids do it — they probably already know how! :-)

      As for me, I'll probably get the Galaxy S3 sometime this fall. Not for the LTE support, rather, but for the screen size. I do find it quite difficult to read tiny text on the Optimus S screen. Going from 3.2" to 4.8" should help a lot. That's exactly a 50% increase in screen size. I also want the longer battery life and faster CPU. I'm really not as concerned with wireless speeds. LTE will happen soon enough. I figure by the time I get the S3, it'll probably be $99 or less for the 16GB model.

      • RoguePisigit says:

        Cool thanks, with the end of the contract so close now anyway, I guess I don’t have anything to lose by rooting! I’m on my own though seeing as the other 2 people on my plan are my parents, and I don’t have any kids, lol. Also, the GSIII is already $150 if you upgrade through Amazon Wireless instead (and the Galaxy Nexus my husband and dad are getting is $49 there instead of $99 at Sprint), so even if the price doesn’t go down by 11/1, you can at least get it for under $200.

        • TD99 says:

          Ah yes, I failed to mention that I cannot use Amazon Wireless nor go into any Sprint Store because I am one of the few remaining SERO (Sprint Employee Referral Offer) plan holders ($40/month for unlimited everything). That’s also why I’m not in the position to switch to Verizon, AT&T, etc.. I won’t be surprised if the GSIII drops for, say, $99 around Christmastime — that’s when I’ll snag two. Until then, the Optimus S with the HydroROM will suit us just fine. :-)

        • TD99 says: