Best cell phone service

51,700 readers reveal that carriers are improving and that a pay-as-you-go plan could be a good option for more people

Last reviewed: January 2009
Illustration of cell phone tower, cast, a cell phone, and a cell phone bill.
Illustration by Sean McCabe

Verizon is a standout cell-phone carrier for most people, based on our exclusive best cell phone service survey of readers in 23 cities. The company received high marks from survey respondents in overall satisfaction and customer service, and service is available in most of the country.

Overall, cell-phone service has become significantly better, judging by the annual survey conducted in September by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Contract terms for cell-phone service are less onerous, and there were fewer problems with call quality in this year's survey. The best carriers even came through after a hurricane hit one of our survey cities.

Sixty percent of readers were completely or very satisfied with their service. That appears to be a substantial improvement over 2007, even though we made some changes to our survey this year, including expanding the number of cities we rate and the coverage areas within them.

The improvement means cellular satisfaction is now closer to the average among all services we rate; it had previously been among the worst.

What's behind this surge in satisfaction? There were fewer problems with connectivity, the ability to widely receive service that's free of static and dropped calls. Overall, 42 percent of readers reported that they had no major complaints about service, up from 29 percent in our previous survey. In particular, they were less likely to cite as a top complaint the automatic extension of their cell-phone contract as a result of changing their service.

Carriers have curbed such practices because of increasing competition and the threat of consumer-rights legislation in Congress. Added pressure came from more than 100 class-action and other lawsuits coast to coast, including one by the Minnesota attorney general, and several key court rulings favorable to consumers.

In apparent response to the legal and regulatory action, all the carriers have stopped automatically extending contracts when consumers make changes to their service plan. And now all but Alltel reduce early-termination fees of $175 to $200 as the contract term progresses.

One of the biggest concerns identified by our survey was the high cost of cell service, the top complaint for 14 percent of respondents. Since we surveyed readers in September, before the onset of the economic crisis, that might not reflect today's heightened concern for reining in costs.

Our analysis of the carriers' pricing uncovered a cost-cutter you might not be aware of: pay-by-the-minute, or prepaid, service. It's offered by all major carriers as well as providers such as Virgin and TracFone. Some prepaid plans could save you a lot, especially if you use your phone infrequently or want unlimited voice calling. (See How to buy a prepaid phone.)

Our Ratings (available to subscribers) show that Verizon ranks among the top carriers in every city we surveyed, along with Alltel where it was rated. (Verizon was awaiting approval to acquire Alltel as we went to press.) T-Mobile was statistically on par with the top carriers in almost two-thirds of the cities where we were able to rate it.

Posted: December 2008 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: January 2009