The misleading new cell phone ads from AT&T and Verizon.

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Dec. 7 2009 5:21 PM

You Lie, Luke Wilson

The misleading new cell phone ads from AT&T and Verizon.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

If you were choosing a cell-phone provider based on TV ads alone, you'd have to pick Verizon. During the last couple months, the company has pummeled AT&T with a series of clever commercials that highlight its larger 3G network coverage area— Verizon's coverage map of America is bathed in red, while AT&T's is mostly empty. AT&T's response has been pretty lame: a lawsuit (since dropped) claiming Verizon's ads are misleading, a press release that claims to "set the record straight" but that really just offers a lot of unrelated spin, and a series of counterattack ads in which a chubby Luke Wilson spouts the same unrelated spin. AT&T doesn't directly dispute the claim that Verizon offers 3G coverage in more places. Instead, the company says that it offers cell service of some kind in 97 percent of the country. AT&T also claims that in places where it offers 3G service, its network is faster than Verizon's—well, at least according to studies that AT&T itself commissioned.

So which company's commercials should you believe? Neither. AT&T and Verizon don't provide any stats that matter when it comes to your day-to-day phone experience. The central problem is that each provider makes sweeping generalizations about localized phenomena. Cell coverage is like the weather in San Francisco—it varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, from hour to hour, and depends on a range of factors outside your control (like the materials from which your building is made). The other similarity between cell reception and the San Francisco weather: They pretty much always suck. That's the most annoying thing about the AT&T-Verizon ad war. Compared with cell networks in foreign countries, coverage in the United States is slower and more prone to error. Whichever company you go with, your service will never be flawless.

Indeed, if AT&T and Verizon really want to prove that they've got great coverage, they'd advertise a little-known provision of their contracts: 30-day cancellation policies. Anyone who signs up for a new cell plan should consider the contract provisional. The only way to know whether a given phone will work for you is to put it through a rigorous, personalized test—and if it stinks, take the phone back and try out a new network.

To see why these return policies are essential, let's examine the claims Verizon makes in its ads. Assume that it's true that Verizon offers 3G service in five times as many places as AT&T. How should that affect your buying decision? Well, it depends. If you live in North or South Dakota—where AT&T lacks 3G coverage—then Verizon's ads are indeed pertinent. You might also be wary of choosing AT&T if you often travel to underpopulated places like the Dakotas. But if you live and work in or near a big city and travel mostly to other big cities, then Verizon's ads don't tell you anything about how your phone will perform. As AT&T points out, its 3G network covers 75 percent of the population—so for most people, Verizon's critique is meaningless.

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The same goes for AT&T's claim that it has the nation's fastest 3G network. The company says its assessment is based on tests by "leading third-party researchers" who downloaded files on all networks and found AT&T to be the "winner by a significant margin." But even if you believe these vague claims, they don't tell you anything about how your phone will work in your kitchen or office. Will AT&T guarantee that your iPhone will be able to surf the Web significantly faster than your wife can on her Verizon-powered Motorola Droid? No, it won't—because depending on where you are at any given moment, the Verizon phone could run circles around the AT&T phone. And, anyway, you may not care whether AT&T's broadband service is faster if your service fails in other ways—if 30 percent of your calls are dropped, for instance, which is rumored to be the average error rate of AT&T's service in New York City.

All of these localized factors make it extremely complicated to choose a phone that will work for you. Hence my advice: Try before you buy. Most cell plans lock you in to two-year contracts that are fortified with steep early-termination fees. (For the most advanced phones, Verizon's fee is $350, while AT&T's is $175.) But thanks to pressure by regulators in many states, all cell companies now offer a 30-day grace period in which you can cancel your service without paying the fee.

Take advantage of these provisions. As part of my job, I get to try many different phones on different cell networks, and I've seen a lot of variance in service quality. When I travel to Los Angeles, I get great service on my iPhone—but trying to stream Internet radio stations over AT&T's 3G network as I drive around San Francisco pretty much never works. I once lived in an apartment that had great voice coverage on Verizon's network, but when I moved to a new place, my phone no longer worked in my bedroom—and the best service I could find there was Sprint.

You wouldn't be able to find out about such defects from cell-company TV ads. Luke Wilson doesn't know whether your phone will conk out in your cubicle—only you can find out for sure. Remember, you're going to be stuck with this phone for two years. Choose wisely.

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