If you're a heavy data user, Sprint offers the most bang for your buck, according to a study released today.
For $1, you get 12.5 megabytes of data, which breaks down to 8 cents per megabyte, by far the best among the national carriers. Surprisingly, T-Mobile offers the worst deal at 4.3 megabytes for every dollar spent, or 23 cents per megabyte.
That's based on a study of "real world" prices conducted by Validas, which provides automated wireless bill analysis and reduction services to consumers and companies.
AT&T, meanwhile, came in second at 5.6 megabytes for every $1 spent, or 18 cents per megabyte, while Verizon Wireless offered 5 megabytes per data, or 20 cents per megabyte.
The study looked at how much, on average, a customer spent on a smartphone data plan and looked at how much data was consumed at each carrier. Sprint got the best stats because more of its customers are on a higher-speed 4G network: a faster connection means more data consumed. The carrier also offers attractive data rates and a completely unlimited plan, which has liked drawn in heavy users.
Sprint doesn't offer the best prices on an absolute prices. For that, you would have to go to T-Mobile, which has been slashing its smartphone plans as it seeks to win back customers. But on a per-megabyte basis, you end up getting more value from Sprint.
Since last year, AT&T has used a usage-based pricing system, which limits how much data can be used without paying overage fees. Verizon switched to a similar model in July.
T-Mobile doesn't have limits on data usage, but has long employed a practice called throttling, which limits a person's connection speed when data consumption hits a certain level.
AT&T and Verizon have both changed their own policies to allow for the throttling of excessive users.
Beyond Sprint, Validas notes that the prices are high largely because the connection speed for wireless service is so slow. Consumers would use more data if they were able to.
"It's not that people don't want to use the data--it's that they're hampered by slow network speeds," the report says.
The other carriers are starting to catch up. Verizon Wireless deployed its faster 4G LTE network late last year, and began selling smartphones for the service earlier this year. The study based its usage and plans on the first half of the year, where there were likely too few Verizon 4G customers to move the needle. AT&T plans to launch its own 4G LTE network in the coming weeks.
For Sprint, the combination of an unlimited data plan and a reasonable smartphone plan gives it an attractive combination to sell to customers. Just as long as they keep that unlimited plan going.
Updated at 1:59 p.m. PT: to include additional background.