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So we can either get already-outdated WiMax phones that will revert to being 3G-only as soon as LTE is rolled out in our area (which could be anytime between a few months from now and late 2013),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?