Rumors have been circulating that Apple has somehow managed to balance battery life, a high-resolution display, and 4G LTE in the next iPad. We won't know until tomorrow if the latter actually makes it to the next-generation tablet, but if it does, which carriers would be your best bet for LTE service in the U.S.? AT&T or Verizon.
I deliberately left Sprint out of the picture here, since the Kansas-based carrier won't be rolling out LTE until mid-2012 and availability will be limited to Baltimore, Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, and San Antonio at that time -- Sprint's existing branding for its "4G" service refers to its WiMax-based network, which the iPad almost certainly will not support. Aside from that, Sprint doesn't currently offer 3G service for the iPad (although it's enjoyed increased MiFi sales over the past couple of years thanks to Apple's tablet). T-Mobile is also a no-show despite the carrier's misleading ads that tout 4G service (actually 3G with enhanced backhaul) -- it won't deploy 4G LTE until next year.
In the event that Apple announces a 4G LTE iPad tomorrow, here are some factors you should consider when choosing your carrier:
Since most users spend most of their time in and around a specific set of locations -- usually home and work -- it's important to know if the device works on a carrier's network in those locations. Look at the coverage maps for AT&T and Verizon for an idea of where they currently have 4G LTE deployed, and then enter your work and home addresses for a detailed look at those locations. In my hometown, Verizon has widespread 4G LTE coverage, while AT&T has not yet built out its network.
If you travel frequently for work and use your iPad while on the road, it's going to be important to know if the carrier has 4G LTE service in the cities you travel to the most. Once again, the coverage maps linked to above are very useful in determining whether or not your device will be able to take advantage of 4G LTE -- provided the next-generation iPad comes so equipped.
Some people are lucky enough to have the option of 4G LTE from both U.S. carriers. In that case, a deciding factor may be the speed of the network. While AT&T's limited network coverage at this time makes a direct comparison in all markets impossible, the company's 4G LTE speeds usually seem to be beating Verizon's.
A comparison by TechnoBuffalo in Irvine, California showed Verizon's average download speeds to be about 5.03 Mbps with an average upload speed of about 5.36 Mbps. For AT&T, the average download speed was about 8.21 Mbps, while uploads were clocked at about 2.72 Mbps.
Data Plan Price
Data plan pricing is also a consideration, and since we don't even know if the next-generation iPad is going to come equipped with 4G LTE, it's almost impossible to predict what the price tag will be on the 4G packages from the two companies. However, we can compare the existing 4G plans for Verizon and AT&T.
Verizon: 2 GB / $30 per month, 5 GB / $50 per month, 10 GB / $80 per month
AT&T: 250 MB / $15 per month, 3 GB / $30 per month, 5 GB / $50 per month
If you already know what your monthly usage is for an existing iPad, that will help in determining what kind of plan you should purchase -- but keep in mind that faster download speeds may bump up your utilization. Remember that all current data plans for iPad are sold on a month-by-month basis and can be canceled with no penalty.
The Bottom Line
Should Apple, Verizon and AT&T announce a 4G LTE-equipped iPad tomorrow, then you'll have to keep all of these factors in mind when making your decision of carrier. For me, the decision is simple: Verizon is the only carrier that currently has a 4G network in my city, and if I want the higher speeds available with LTE, that's my choice.
If Apple doesn't announce a 4G tablet tomorrow, then I'll be sure to update this post when the next-generation iPhone appears later this year -- hopefully with the ability to work with 4G LTE networks. Be sure to join us for the Apple iPad event coverage at 10am PT / 1pm ET tomorrow!