National Cell Phone Plan?

The term "national service" seems to be relative when it comes to getting cell phone serice in the United States. We just got back from a cross-country trip to visit family in Iowa about a week ago. Along the way, we made stopovers at Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore, as well as numerous towns in the Northwestern United States as we passed through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa. The return trip routed us through Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The trip was a classic American family vacation, filled with beautiful countryside, odd roadside stops, too much junk food, and my strong desire to never hear the same songs again. It was also filled with hundreds of miles of lousy cell phone coverage.

Among the necessary supplies for the trip we included Robin's iPhone on the AT&T network, my Nexus One on T-Mobile, and my Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G personal WiFi hotspot. Two things are true about my cell phone usage. First, I rarely use my cell phone for voice. Second, if I don't have access to a data network, my cell phone is largely useless to me. While I don't need to be connected 100% of the time, having the option is nice and I certainly expect all features to function when I arrive in any town larger than 50,000 people. Unfortunately, I'm finding that T-Mobile, which I use because it's the only service that works at my house, might be the worst "national carrier" in the country in terms of cellular data coverage.

As we travelled, I attempted to log each stop we made using Foursquare on my phone. If you haven't used Foursquare, it's a cool app, available on smartphones and in a browser, that lets you keep track of the locations you visit. I wanted to log our stops because I thought it might be fun to look back later and remember the places we visited. T-Mobile with an unlimited data plan makes this feat impossible because T-Mobile has really lousy coverage outside of major metropolitan areas. My best estimate is that we had access to the T-Mobile data network for about 500 miles of road in what was approximately 2500 miles covered. In other words, if you plan to leave major metropolitan areas, don't count on T-Mobile. To all the people who have asked me why I don't drop my Sprint Overdrive and just tether my laptop to my Nexus One, my response is I like having a data plan that always works.

AT&T performed better than T-Mobile and even had cell phone access in Yellowstone at points where T-Mobile couldn't pick up a roaming voice network. Still AT&T was unavailable for large stretches along our journey as well. My data-only Sprint plan worked everywhere I wanted it to, except a few places in Yellowstone and the Black Hills where it couldn't find a cell tower. Because I had the Overdrive with me, I could still check into Foursquare and log various stops using the Sprint data network to connect my T-Mobile phone. Sprint allowed me to book hotel rooms from the road when we made plans to stop for the night. Both T-Mobile and AT&T had times where I would not have been able to look up a hotel online. I'm guessing Verizon has coverage equivalent to Sprint based on the number of Verizon stores I saw along our route.

I know most other countries offer far better cell phone provider options, because you don't get locked in to a carrier the way we do it here in the United States. I'd be curious to know if using data plans is any better or worse. I know that China seems to have service almost anywhere, even if the network speed is typically slower than the 3G networks here. What's your experience with using a cell phone data plan? Good? Bad? Share your thoughts!