John Legere has done a great job convincing many tech reporters that he's not like the rest of the CEOs running cellular carriers. He's gained fawning press because he calls his competitors' offerings "shit" and worse. Being the industry's bad boy is his shtick. As such, his company aggressively promotes itself as the "uncarrier" that doesn't abuse customers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon do. The truth is that T-Mobile is different, but not necessarily any fairer to customers. In fact, T-Mobile has incredibly complex plans that are hard to understand and full of charges not readily apparent, such as low-price "unlimited" plans that are actually limited beyond the first line unless you pay extra per line. Conversely, AT&T and Verizon have the simplest-to-understand plans.
Which is not to say that AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon are any better. They may advertise great pricing, but at the end of the day, they're expensive to use, too. Yes, they've simplified their plans -- but often at higher prices than a few years ago.
Making sense of carrier plans is not easy, so I've created a calculator (see below) that will show you how the four major carriers actually compare for the service you want. Occasionally, you'll find that one is substantially cheaper than the rest, but I think you'll decide that overall, they're pretty much the same. That means most people should choose their carrier based on the quality of the service where they live and travel. Of course that varies widely, too, again despite the promises in their ads.
Note that the upfront charges include activation fees and other carrier costs (such as the $10 SIM that T-Mobile sells separately from its smartphones). Neither the upfront nor monthly charges include taxes or government-imposed fees, as those vary by location. If you have a mix of basic cellphones and smartphones, your cost per line will go down about $10 per basic cellphone on all the carriers.
Also note that T-Mobile does not require (or allow) users to share the same pool of data, so users can have their own allotments (500MB, 2.5GB, and unlimited). However, for a user to have tethering enabled, his or her line must have at least 2.5GB of data allocated to it. The calculations above will increase the data plan as necessary to support tethering for all lines if tethering is selected above.
Confused? Congrats! That's the carriers' goal, so you'll spend more than you need to -- or get less than you thought. But use the tool above and those at each carrier to work through to the best options for you.
This article, "Dollars and cents: The real cost of a smartphone plan," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.