America's favorite (and least favorite) wireless companies and smartphones

T-Mobile leads the pack of big providers, but Consumer Cellular is the clear winner. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is now America’s favorite smartphone, survey finds.
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A customer tries out a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 smartphone.SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
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By Herb Weisbaum

We love our smartphones, but many wireless customers are less than satisfied with their mobile service provider.

Mobile phone service rated 75 out of 100, in the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Wireless Service and Cellular Telephone Report released on Tuesday. While that’s up 1.4 percent from last year, it still lags many of the other industries ACSI rates, such as banks and credit unions (81), property insurance (81) and financial advisors (80).

“Customers have very high expectations of their smartphones and the service provided to those phones,” said David VanAmburg, ACSI managing director. “Providers are still struggling to meet those expectations and that’s definitely dampening how satisfied customers are.”

Dropped calls continue to be an annoyance, but as mobile devices are used less for talking and more for streaming video, customers want a reliable signal to quickly download content and watch videos.

“We really want to consume this data and the service is not always up to speed,” VanAmburg told NBC News BETTER.

ACSI interviewed more than 19,000 wireless customers for the report, chosen at random between April 2018 and March of this year.

And the winners are...

When it comes to wireless service, most consumers have the following choices: the major mobile network operators, prepaid service from one of those carriers or a company that resells airtime from one of the network carriers.

Mobile network operators have significantly lowest satisfaction scores of the three options, with a 73 overall.

  • T-Mobile led the pack with an ACSI score of 76. T-Mobile customers say the company provides “better value” than the other large wireless companies. It also rated best in class for ease of billing.
  • U.S. Cellular and Verizon followed closely behind at 74. Verizon scored the highest for nationwide network quality, but below T-Mobile on value. U.S. Cellular does not have a fully nationwide network.
  • AT&T at 73, scored statistically average across every single metric in the ACSI study: quality, value, mobile app, call clarity, billing, variety of plans and in-store customer service.
  • Sprint, at 65, finished at the bottom of the rankings. Sprint’s mobile app ranked below its competitor’s apps — customers rated it the lowest for both quality and reliability.

Rating the carriers for call and data quality

This year for the first time, ACSI developed a rating for network quality — based on customer evaluations of call quality (clarity and strength), call reliability (dropped calls), network coverage and data speed.

Verizon (80) rated highest for network quality. AT&T (78) finished second, followed closely by T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular at 77. Sprint significantly trailed the category with a 72.

The five carriers provide good customer satisfaction, the ACSI survey found. Staff courtesy and helpfulness (81) was the highest-scoring aspect of the customer experience. Data speed (76) and call centers (71) scored lowest.

Customer also said they would like to see a wider range of wireless plans, as well as speedier in-store service.

Prepaid services

Some customers like to pay upfront for cellphone service. The billing is straightforward and they find it easier to stick to a budget.

Prepaid mobile (77) scored 4 points higher than the network mobile operators, which is interesting, since these services are offered by those companies.

  • Cricket Wireless (part of AT&T’s prepaid portfolio) led the category with a 79. Customers say Cricket offers the best range of wireless plans in this category.
  • Metro by T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile (a subsidiary of Sprint) tied at 76.
  • Sprint’s Boost Mobile (74) took last place.

“Device compatibility may be a problem,” the report noted, since Boost Mobile devices only work on Boost Mobile and some certified Sprint devices. Boost also rates lowest in this category for dropped call frequency.

Smaller companies rate significantly higher

Wireless companies that buy airtime from the network operators and resell it under their own brand name are doing a much better job of keeping their customers satisfied.

With an average score of 81, they scored eight points ahead of the national carriers. They earned the highest scores for all aspects of the customer experience, especially billing (89).

  • Consumer Cellular, with a score of 85, was the clear winner in this category — the highest rated wireless company in the survey, big or small.
  • Straight Talk Wireless (80) took second place
  • TracFone Wireless (77), did not do as well as the others for data speed and reliability.

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What makes Consumer Cellular so popular?

This no-contract, postpaid service (you’re billed monthly, similar to traditional wireless companies) rated No. 1 for ease of billing. AARP members get a 5 percent discount.

“It’s a great value and a great product for older Americans, in particular, who are looking for a way to stay connected via cellphone, but do it relatively cheaply,” VanAmburg said.

Who make the best smart phones?

The ACSI survey found that customer satisfaction with cellphones remained stagnant at 79 for the fourth year in a row.

“Unmoved customer satisfaction with mobile devices is the result of high expectation combined with the lack of innovation in the industry,” the report said.

Battery life continues to be one of the lowest-scoring aspects of mobile devices. While this technology is improving, customers still want longer battery life.

Samsung’s gained 1 percent from last year, pushing it into a tie for first place with Apple at 81. Price may be an issue for Apple, as the data showed the company’s value is “lacking” compared to the other manufacturers.

Motorola (80) and LG (78) both saw a 1 percent uptick in satisfaction.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is now America’s favorite smartphone (86). Users say they “appreciate the powerful android model with its large screen and broad capabilities,” the report said.

Apple’s iPhone X at 83, does no better than the Galaxy J7 Prime, Galaxy S8+ or Moto G; it tied with the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone SE.

Four models scored an 82: Samsung Galaxy J7, Galaxy S9 and S9+, Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus and iPhone 7 Plus.

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