AT&T, Verizon iPad 2 data plans compared

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With the original iPad, you had a simple choice to make: to 3G or not to 3G. But with the addition of Verizon 3G data options alongside those from longtime Apple partner AT&T, you now have to not only decide if you want 3G connectivity in addition to Wi-Fi, but which carrier you want service from as well.

There are separate versions of the 3G-enabled iPad 2—one for AT&T’s network, and one for Verizon’s. You can’t just get a 3G-enabled iPad 2 to use across both carriers. In fact, if you include the new black and white color options, as well as the three storage sizes of 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB (the same sizes of the first-generation iPad), Apple sells a total of 12 different 3G-enabled iPad 2 models between both carriers.

You’ll also want to think about carrier coverage. The advantages, disadvantages, and intricacies of wireless coverage between the U.S.’s two largest carriers have been covered at length elsewhere, so I’m not going to duplicate them here. But if you haven’t ticked this item off your shopping research list yet, I recommend spending some time planning where you’re likely to use your iPad 2’s wireless connection, talking to friends who are currently using the provider you’re interested in, and checking both Verizon’s and AT&T’s published coverage maps.

Keep in mind that the plans on both Verizon and AT&T are offered on a no-contract, month-to-month basis. That means that you can sign up for a month, cancel the plan afterwards, and then sign up for a separate month at some point in the future. However, while AT&T now offers both prepaid and postpaid options for data plans, Verizon only allows you to pay for data upfront. Verizon's Executive Director of Corporate Communications, Brenda Raney, also confirmed to Macworld that, like AT&T, Verizon will not charge an activation fee to begin service, or even a reactivation fee if you cancel your service and start it up again a few months later.

Of course, for many of you, the iPad 2 decision will come down to which data plan and cost works best for you. In that case, let’s get to the chart:

Note: Neither AT&T nor Verizon charge activation fees for iPad data plans. You can start service one month, cancel it, and start again months later with no activation fees.

In terms of variety, Verizon has taken a shot at AT&T by offering more data plan options at a number of price points. Targeting data-hungry power users, Verizon’s monthly plans are available in 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB options, while AT&T’s plans top out at 2GB.

On the low end, AT&T does best Verizon by $5 per month for 250MB of data. For users who just want the cheapest wireless access while on-the-go, or those who are mainly interested in low-bandwidth tasks like checking e-mail infrequently or occasionally downloading a book or two, AT&T has the advantage there.

Ultimately, Verizon offers a more affordable data plan ladder to climb if you think your wireless usage could increase over time. If you plan to do more browsing, working, or app downloading on your commute or at the local Wi-Fi-less park, you’ll probably spend less money on Verizon as your wireless data usage grows.

Updated at 2:46 p.m. on Thursday March 10 with confirmation that Verizon will not be charging activation fees for iPad 3G plans.

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