Best cell-phone service

More than 50,000 readers rate their wireless carrier

Last reviewed: January 2010
January 2010 issue cover This article appeared in
January 2010 Consumer Reports Magazine.
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Illustration of waiters carrying cell-phone service on trays
Illustration by Gary Sawyer

With more capable and "smarter" phones, bigger and faster wireless networks, and more varied and flexible plans, you might think consumers would be getting happier with their cell-phone service. Instead, a survey of Consumer Reports readers shows no such trend.

In our annual survey conducted this fall by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, only 54 percent of respondents were completely or very satisfied with their cell-phone service. That's a tepid showing compared with most other services we rate. Almost two-thirds of readers had at least one major complaint about service.

Here's what else our survey showed:

Verizon Wireless is tops overall

Verizon, now the nation's largest wireless carrier after its acquisition of Alltel last year, had the top score in our overall summary Ratings and was a high scorer in a majority of the 26 cities we surveyed. (See our city-by-city Ratings.)

Price is the paramount problem

About one in five readers cited high cost as their top complaint about cellular. That's more than for any other annoyance.

Texting and other data uses boom

Almost 70 percent of readers said they sent and received text messages. That compares with 55 percent in 2007. About 20 percent of the 2009 group reported pecking out 10 or more messages per day. Roughly 40 percent said they accessed the Internet with their phone, up from 23 percent two years ago, and more than 35 percent sent and received e-mail on their phone. Some 19 percent used Web-based cell-phone applications.

Data service gets ho-hum marks

This year, for the first time, we asked readers about their experiences with text messaging and surfing the Web. The verdict was mixed. Only 24 percent of data-service users rated their Web and e-mail experience as excellent. Among Web users, 37 percent said that Web access was slower than expected on at least one occasion in the week prior to the survey. Eighteen percent of e-mail users cited the inability to send or receive e-mail as a problem.

Prepaid expands and scores well

The fairly small percentage of our readers who used prepaid service were generally happy with it. In our first Ratings of the service, prepaid specialist TracFone received the highest score, followed by prepaid service from T-Mobile; Virgin Mobile, another prepaid specialist; and prepaid service from Verizon. AT&T's prepaid service rated better than its contract service, but it was the worst prepaid provider.

Phone exclusivity shapes choices

A separate new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center on cell-phone buying provides interesting data as the Federal Communications Commission considers whether to regulate deals that make phones exclusively available from certain carriers. Thirty-eight percent of respondents who had switched carriers in the past two years did so because it was required to get the phone they wanted. And 27 percent of all respondents went shopping with a specific phone in mind.

See You want the best, You want an iPhone, and You want bargain basics; three scenarios for today's cell-phone users and our recommendations for them, based on our survey findings and reporting.