Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey

AT&T? Verizon? Ting? Consumer Cellular? Our annual reader poll finds the best—and worst—cell phone carriers.

Published: November 20, 2014 06:00 AM

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When's the last time you heard anyone describe herself as "completely satisfied" with her cellular service? That's the kind of feedback we got from customers of several upstart carriers in Consumer Reports National Research Center's annual cell phone service satisfaction survey. (The survey was fielded in September to 63,352 subscribers.) Among the smaller carriers in our Ratings of traditional (aka postpaid) cell service are Consumer Cellular, which stands out for value, data service, and customer support, and Ting, which scored high for value and data service.

Review see our cell phone service Ratings to see the overall scores for all the companies. Check out our in-depth smart phone ratings and our guide to the best phone plans to save your family money

The picture was not so rosy for the major carriers. While Verizon gets very good scores for voice and texting service, it has a very poor rating on value. T-Mobile's parity with Verizon is a result of a jump in T-Mobile's overall satisfaction from last year, and a drop in Verizon's overall score. T-Mobile's rise in 2014 is largely attributable to a bump in perceived value by customers.

This might be a result of T-Mobile's aggressive "Uncarrier" strategy, which effectively decouples the purchase of your phone with the payment of your plan. Ironically, T-Mobile's good score for value makes it a standout among the big four carriers; the other three rate very poor. The biggest black eye of our survey is reserved for Sprint, which ranks dead last with a very poor score for value, a poor score on data service, and middling results for voice and text.

National data paints a broad-strokes picture of overall carrier satisfaction, but for detailed results specific to your region, check our Ratings for 26 major metro areas

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We reached out to several of the carriers in our survey for comment. Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting, was ecstatic. "What we do is actually sort of obvious," he said. "We offer fair, honest pricing that doesn't penalize customers for using too much or too little. Our customers seem to appreciate it and we certainly appreciate this recognition from them."

A Verizon representative said, "The choices Verizon offers on the nation's largest and most reliable 4G LTE network go well beyond price. We'll continue to work to demonstrate value by providing excellent customer experiences." Meanwhile, an AT&T representative said that the company had been investing greatly over the last six years to improve its offerings.

Sprint was understandably disappointed in our survey results, and noted that in the last few months, the company has made "dramatic changes in the two areas that matter most to customers—price and network." Sprint's representative highlighted the company's new pricing plans, and said there had been improvements in voice and data quality.

—Glenn Derene

Check our cell phone service Ratings to see the overall scores for all the companies.

What's the difference between prepaid and traditional plans?

The distinction between prepaid and postpaid plans might be disintegrating. Prepaid plans traditionally have been the best option for customers who value flexibility and want to avoid long-term contracts, but they typically involved paying up front for the phone, with a substandard selection of devices that were often far from the cutting edge.

Now major carriers are offering plans for the latest and greatest phones that decouple the cost of the device from the cost of the service. The plans vary greatly and change often, but the basic deal is essentially this: Pay full price for the phone up front, or pay monthly installments over time until it is paid off—which often amounts to an interest-free loan on your device. Once the phone is paid off, you only pay for service.

Carriers that focus on prepaid service, such as TracFone, Straight Talk, and Net10, still rate quite high in our customer satisfaction survey, with high scores for value. And many of these carriers now offer hot phones such as the Apple iPhone 6, or allow you to use your own phone—provided it's compatible with their network.

Carriers such as Republic and Ting are using new strategies to keep costs down and simplify service options. Republic combines Wi-Fi and cellular service, automatically routing calls over your home Wi-Fi network, then handing off to the cellular network when you're out of range of a hot spot. Ting has perhaps the simplest plan of all—you pay a monthly fee for each device on the plan, then you are billed at the end of the month for the voice minutes and data that you use. The less you use, the less you pay. Both carriers scored high in our Ratings.

Our survey found that most respondents (73 percent) still have traditional (postpaid) plans, with the rest of respondents split fairly evenly between traditional no-contract plans and prepaid plans.

On the whole, we found that customers with traditional no-contract plans were the most satisfied.


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