More on Cell Phones

Bigger is better. Right?

Not necessarily when it comes to cell-phone providers.

Three of the country's biggest cellular companies received low ratings on a number of factors in Consumer Reports’ most recent wireless service survey, which rates carriers big and small on overall customer satisfaction and details such as value and customer support.

And that’s nothing new. The same three carriers—AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon—fell at or near the bottom in last year’s annual survey, and in the one before that.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the major carriers.

While T-Mobile didn’t make it anywhere near the top of the ratings, it did place significantly higher than the other three big providers for overall satisfaction. In particular, the company (which is on track to eventually merge with Sprint) earned a favorable mark for customer service. None of the other three did. In fact, AT&T and Sprint earned our worst rating on this measure.

And just as in past years, all of the big players were eclipsed by much smaller companies.

Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, and Ting took the top spots this year, as they did in the two most recent surveys. And Consumer Cellular and Ting were the only companies to receive our highest rating for customer support.

CR’s survey shows that those three big players are losing CR members as customers, often to these smaller, higher-rated competitors. For example, 32 percent of those who reported switching said they left Verizon, far outweighing the 19 percent who said they switched to Verizon.

In total, the survey found that 9 percent of CR members had switched providers in the past two years.

"After studying the ratings and the underlying data in the survey, it's easy to see why people are tempted to switch providers. In fact, I’m surprised that it's not an even bigger number," says Martin Lachter, a Consumer Reports survey project leader.

Lachter adds that a large majority of those who said they made a switch reported being happy with their decision. T-Mobile did better than any other carrier at picking up customers who switched. Twenty-four percent of survey respondents who switched carriers went to T-Mobile, far outnumbering the 7 percent who left T-Mobile for another carrier.

This year’s ratings are based on responses provided by 104,373 Consumer Reports members who use traditional or prepaid cellular services.

Here’s a closer look at the results. 

Small Cell Providers Have Big Fans

A group of friends on their phones in a bar, possibly choosing among cell-phone companies

Cell-phone service can be very expensive, especially if you have a family that uses lots of connected devices—smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and more. And there’s nothing more frustrating than paying a hefty monthly bill while feeling like you’re not getting your money’s worth.

That’s the way many people in our survey feel about the big carriers, which tend to charge more than small providers for their services. The worst performers—including AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint—received our worst rating for value.

Just 8 percent of the Verizon customers and 12 percent of the AT&T customers surveyed said they stayed with their respective carriers because of attractive pricing.

Top-ranked Consumer Cellular got high ratings for both value and customer support. Google Fi also got a top mark for value but didn’t do as well as Consumer Cellular for customer service. It did rate favorably on this attribute.

Customers of both those services said they were getting a good deal. About 85 percent of Consumer Cellular customers and 80 percent of Google Fi customers surveyed said they stayed with their provider because of their wireless costs.

And value is important to our respondents. Of those who said they made a switch within the past two years, 59 percent pointed to cost as the motivating factor.

“We can’t say it all comes down to cost, but that is certainly a big factor,” Lachter says. “It’s definitely a main reason why most of the customers of many of the highest-rated providers are with those providers.”

Companies such as Google Fi, Ting, and Republic Wireless keep rates low by leaning heavily on WiFi networks, even for making phone calls and sending text messages. And they usually charge customers only for the data they use rather than for a monthly allotment of data they might not need.

But while they have their fans, those prepaid plans still lag traditional ones in popularity. Just 14 percent of those surveyed said they used a prepaid service.