In the summer of 2016, actor Paul Marcarelli, the longtime “Can you hear me now” guy from the Verizon television commercials, caused a stir when he began appearing in TV ads for Sprint, citing the network's “vastly improved” network. But many of the Sprint customers surveyed in Consumer Reports’ 2016 U.S. Cell Phone Service Provider Ratings Survey would beg to differ.

For customers with traditional cell-phone plans in this survey completed by 100,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, Sprint earned some of the worst customer-satisfaction scores in the survey for customer support, value, voice quality and connection, texting, internet reliability, and data service.

AT&T fared no better in the survey, while Verizon did only slightly better.

That leaves T-Mobile. And that carrier performed notably better than its biggest competitors for customer support and value. One contributing factor might be that several T-Mobile plans let customers stream content from Netflix, Pandora, and dozens of other entertainment sources without counting the content against their monthly data threshold.  

As in previous years, smaller providers, such as Consumer Cellular and Ting, earned the highest scores in this annual survey.

Small Cell Providers Please Big

Across traditional and prepaid plans, the most satisfied cell customers were those using smaller cell-phone providers such as Consumer Cellular, Ting Wireless, and Project Fi, a service launched by Google earlier this year. Project Fi earned the top place among prepaid providers, whose customers pay in advance by the month (or even the day) for packages of voice minutes, text messages, and/or data.

These providers all earned particularly high scores for value. According to their customers, these cell-phone companies offer low prices and responsive, knowledgeable customer support.

Project Fi, like Republic and Ting, keeps rates low by relying heavily on public and private WiFi networks, even for making phone calls and sending text messages. These three also charge only for services actually used, so consumers don't end up paying for more data than they actually download.

But these cell providers offer a limited selection of phones, skipping many high-profile, high-cost models. For instance, Project Fi offers just three models, all running Android: Google’s new Pixel smartphone, and the aging Nexus 6P and 5X smartphones.

Consumer Cellular, a top-rated traditional service, offers more phones, including the iPhone 7 and Samsung’s high-end Galaxy S7. But even this provider relies mainly on lesser-known models from ZTE and Alcatel.

We've also seen differences among providers when it comes to robocalls

This year, the Consumer Reports National Research Center began assessing provider efforts to reduce the number of telemarketing calls that consumers receive. Such calls used to be an annoyance only for landline customers, but they're increasingly affecting cell-phone users, as well.

In our survey, customers of some smaller providers—particularly Ting, Great Call, Virgin Mobile, and TracFone—reported receiving far fewer telemarketer calls than people using the big four carriers. Great Call, maker of Jitterbug phones designed for people with special cognitive- or health-related needs, has its own operators and provides a number of services, from remote phone programming to personal check-ins.

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, is spearheading a campaign to push back against robocalling.


Considering changing your wireless provider? Check our buying guide and Ratings for cell phone carriers.
 

Cell-Phone Subscribers Are Loyal

A family choosing among cell-phone companies

The survey's unflattering portrait of the major carriers, where more than 80 percent of our respondents currently get their service, would suggest a mass migration was on the horizon. But that's not likely to occur.

As a whole, U.S. cell-phone companies have a loyal subscriber base, with survey respondents saying they have been with their current provider for an average of eight years. When asked why they chose their service provider, 45 percent of respondents said that they'd simply been with the same cell-phone company for a long time. (Network coverage and cellular reception were cited by 46 percent of respondents.)

About 40 percent of long-term subscribers (people who have used the same provider for more than two years) reported that their service was reasonably reliable in the geographic areas where they needed it, or that they simply didn’t have any major reason to consider switching to a new provider. And only a minority of long-term subscribers (7 percent) reported that they were stuck with a limited number of options for switching to a new cell-phone company in their coverage area.

So why do people move to a new provider? For the 10 percent of subscribers who switched within the past two years, 53 did so to get a cheaper plan. And almost half (45 percent) of the people who switched reduced their monthly bill by $20 or more.

Other big reasons for switching included wanting to upgrade a phone (25 percent) or to get better coverage or reception (31 percent).

But only about one in three reported getting more reliable connections as a result of the switch.