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Coast to Coast Cell Service

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RDT

Joined
Jan 3, 2018
Messages
8
Hi guys,

Im planning on taking a coast to coast Amtrak trip later this year and am looking for advice on prepaid data plans - or more precisely, networks.

Im based in the UK, and whilst Ive done this trip before, it was 8 years ago and much has changed.

Ive got an iPad Pro with Cellular, so Im able to choose a GSM or CDMA carrier but am struggling to compare coverage along my planned route.

Ill be taking the North East Regional, Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr, heading from New York to Emmeryville, via Washington DC and Chicago.

I know that Im not going to get a perfect service in some of the more remote stretches, but itd be good to have an idea of who offers the best service along these routes.

Thanks

R
 

BuffaloBoy

Service Attendant
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Apr 23, 2015
Messages
185
Location
SLC
Good question R. Cell service in this country is a constant problem no matter where you are. I live within 200 feet of a very large cell phone tower (company unknown) and have a lot of drops. I have t-mobile and would not recommend them. Most people I talk to highly recommend Verizon but I won't switch because I have a very great deal that Verizon cannot match. I would do Verizon if I was you and accept that you will have dead zones on both the CL and CZ. Pre-load any movies or music you want to enjoy on your trip as I wouldn't recommend trying to stream. Have a great trip!
 

TiBike

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Overall, Verizon (CDMA) has the widest coverage area in the U.S., but AT&T (GSM) isn't far behind. T-Mobile isn't too bad -- I went cross country with them and it was tolerable -- they're GSM and have some roaming arrangements with AT&T. Sprint (CDMA) has the worst coverage, particularly in rural areas.
 

SP&S

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First off, two sad facts: no US carrier has universal coverage and the carrier's coverage maps are not always reliable.

That said, Verizon seems to have the most coverage with AT&T a close second. Some might say that it is the other way around and I wouldn't waste time arguing - they might well be right. In any case, if you want coverage avoid T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekom) and Sprint. Of course, Verizon and AT&T are the most expensive providers in the country. Verizon gets real hinky about what phones/devices they will allow on their network, AT&T is less picky. Verizon is historically CDMA where AT&T was TDMA and progressed to GSM. All of those are falling by the wayside and LTE only devices are more than serviceable. I'd investigate companies that resell time on Verizon or AT&T network. You might wish to verify in advance that the company's sim card will work with your particular phone.

<sarcasm>Remember that in the US, cell phone carriers are well respected companies</sarcasm> - on a par with used car lots.
 

the_traveler

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Whatever siding I'm sitting on!
Although it’s not a true prepaid company, you may want to check out Consumer Cellular. They operate using the AT&T network (GSM) but they do not require a contract - and they’re MUCH less than AT&T.
 

TiBike

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As you get further from urban areas, the likelihood of having 4G LTE service drops. LTE is increasingly available in rural areas, but to maximise accessibility in rural areas, you should have a device that handles 2G and 3G as well.

Verizon is historically CDMA where AT&T was TDMA and progressed to GSM. All of those are falling by the wayside and LTE only devices are more than serviceable.
 

desertflyer

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San Francisco
If I was picking a provider just off the coast-to-coast route, I'd probably go with Verizon. It'll likely be more expensive and not as fast, but it'll have the most consistent coverage, which is probably what you want. Coverage maps typically overstate coverage on all carriers so don't expect ubiquitous coverage for the entire trip coast to coast.
 

zephyr17

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Washington State
I have T-Mobile and like it for a number of reasons, but once you get out of cities, coverage is sketchy. So even though I am a reasonably happy T-Mobile customer, I would not recommend it for you.
 

KmH

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Is this heaven? No. It's Iowa.
Even with Verizon there will be significant gaps in coverage between Denver and Reno, mostly when the train's route is away from interstate highways.
 
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Bob Dylan

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Austin Texas
As a Sprint/Boost( Sprint owned and Much better deal!) Customer for over 10 years, I agree it's not the greatest out in the boonies, but the LTE Network works fine in "Civilization" and is definitely Cheaper than the Big 2!!!
 
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pennyk

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I have a Verizon prepaid plan and am very happy with it while in the US. However, I was unable to upgrade to any service while in Canada last year.
 

jebr

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Verizon traditionally has the strongest network, but also is the highest-priced. AT&T is usually a bit cheaper/has a few more prepaid resellers and has decent coverage. T-Mobile is third place, and Sprint is fourth place but has the cheapest options (typically.)

That being said, it looks like AT&T has a $35/30 day unlimited option for iPads. That might be your best route. There's a blog post with more information here.
 

VAtrainfan

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Even with Verizon there will be significant gaps in coverage between Denver and Reno, mostly when ever the train's route is away from interstate highways.
This is true for a lot of the country, even in places you wouldn't expect. For example on the East Coast. The CSX Richmond-Washington track wanders away from I-95 between about Ruther Glen (just north of ASD) and FBG and cell coverage completely drops off.
 

Devil's Advocate

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Im planning on taking a coast to coast Amtrak trip later this year and am looking for advice on prepaid data plans - or more precisely, networks. Im based in the UK, and whilst Ive done this trip before, it was 8 years ago and much has changed. Ive got an iPad Pro with Cellular, so Im able to choose a GSM or CDMA carrier but am struggling to compare coverage along my planned route. Ill be taking the North East Regional, Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr, heading from New York to Emmeryville, via Washington DC and Chicago. I know that Im not going to get a perfect service in some of the more remote stretches, but itd be good to have an idea of who offers the best service along these routes.
I've traveled on Amtrak with all four of the major providers and all of them will drop out for extended periods when traveling through sparsely populated rural areas. By the same token any of them should work reasonably well in urban areas. We have four major providers: Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint. In my experience Verizon has the strongest network coverage but also the strictest access rules, AT&T and T-Mobile share the middle ground of relatively easy access and reasonable coverage, while Sprint sells access to almost anyone but also suffers the weakest coverage and slowest speeds by far.

One thing to keep in mind is that much of T-Mobile's spectrum and national network is relatively new, in fact much of it was licensed and built sometime in the last two years, and unless you have a very recent device it may not support all of the frequencies necessary to fully benefit from it. Prior to 2015 T-Mobile mainly piggybacked on AT&T and to this day Sprint still piggybacks on Verizon's network anytime you're outside of a major metro area. Unfortunately Sprint prepaid devices are so low on the priority chain that Verizon towers will sometimes simply ignore their IMEI's even when they're in range.

If service coverage is the most important factor then consider purchasing a Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot (such as the AC791L) plus an external 4G/3G window antenna plus the necessary connector adapters. It won't be cheap or simple but it should give you the best single provider coverage available to a foreign iPad Pro.
 
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RDT

Joined
Jan 3, 2018
Messages
8
Thanks guys, there’s really useful information here.

It looks like I’ll be heading the Verizon route for iPad data.

The UK mobile network ‘Three’ has a very handy ‘Feel at Home’ tariff that allows data/calls/messages to be charged at the standard UK rate for pay as you go. It’s perfect for my cell phone. £30 gets you 10gb of 4G data in most countries... and they have agreements in place for AT&T and T-Mobile, so I can roam onto whichever has best coverage.

Whilst I appreciate Verizon is perhaps the more expensive option for long-term use, I don’t mind paying a one off cost for 30 days of unlimited data. I think my understanding is for $80, I can get unlimited data usage (subject to throttling at high data use).

Now I just need to buy a SIM card in preparation!

Hopefully this’ll help others out too.

Thanks

RDT

Sent from my iPad using Amtrak Forum
 

Lonestar648

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My project management teams have tried the different networks, always coming back to Verizon. Price isn't a factor if you can't get coverage with the cheaper network. We work projects in all states, with many extremely rural customers. Not having communications isn't an option. That being said, I will tell you to plan not to have much or any coverage in the river canyons in Colorado. Also, plan for short data messages in these areas that can be sent in one or two seconds, if your device get momentary connectivity.
 

Cho Cho Charlie

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Near an Amtrak station
Ive got an iPad Pro with Cellular, so Im able to choose a GSM or CDMA carrier but am struggling to compare coverage along my planned route.
Since you're in the UK, I would also check out if your iPad supports the cellular frequencies (bands) in use here in the USA. IMHO, that is more important than CDMA vs. GSM vs LTE.
 

trainman74

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Since you're in the UK, I would also check out if your iPad supports the cellular frequencies (bands) in use here in the USA. IMHO, that is more important than CDMA vs. GSM vs LTE.
From a little Googling, it appears that all iPad Pro models worldwide receive the same set of cell frequencies, so this shouldn't be an issue.
 

Big Iron

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On the Capitol Limited cell service between Cumberland, Md. and Pittsburgh, PA in intermittent. I have Verizon.
 

bmjhagen9426

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761
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Klamath Falls, Oregon
On the Zephyr, cell coverage drops completely for about two hours west of Denver, particularly in Glenwood Canyon and the Gore Canyon. In Nevada, coverage is limited to 3G in some places east of Reno.
 

Don Newcomb

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Aug 8, 2008
Messages
287
One thing I didn't notice in the previous discussion is if you plan to be in coach or a sleeper. In a sleeping car you should have WiFi service, where the connectivity, I believe, comes from Verizon cellular towers. So, depending on which car you are in, you may not need cellular data service. This connectivity is shared with other people in the car, so you may not get the fastest possible service but if you have your own Verizon device, would it be much faster? Interesting question: Assume that each sleeping car has it's own cellular connection, plus all the other Verizon devices (including yours) all hitting some rural tower, as hard as they can, all at the same time. You may just be trying to get a 9th slice out of an 8-slice pie.

In my limited experience, the in-car WiFi is generally not stable or fast enough to support VoIP, much less Skype, Face-Time, etc.

If you can use the on-train WiFi, you may not really need ubiquitous cellular service and might be able to go with a more economical option.
 

Lonestar648

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I have not found WiFi in the sleepers on the CZ when I traveled this past summer, nor on the CL but that was over a year ago.

I do know that the closer you have the cell phone to the window, the better coverage you may get in spotty areas. The metal of the car limits the signals in and out. On the CZ holding my phone mid room was zero bars, but up against the window was one -two bars.
 

Don Newcomb

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Aug 8, 2008
Messages
287
I have not found WiFi in the sleepers on the CZ when I traveled this past summer, nor on the CL but that was over a year ago.
The CZ is not on the WiFi list but the NER is. I suppose the lack of WiFi on CZ can be chalked up to the fact that so much of it's route runs through really remote areas with poor cellular coverage. The CL runs through relatively well covered area for cellular, so any carrier would probably do.
 
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