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Verizon best, AT&T worst in Consumer Reports carrier survey

Verizon's U.S. coverage map
Verizon's U.S. coverage map, with red areas marking digital coverage and green dots denoting cities with 4G LTE networks.Verizon Wireless

Consumer Reports' annual ratings of wireless providers, released Thursday, shows that the major cellphone companies still have a lot of work to do to boost customer satisfaction.

In fact, none of the big four national carriers had an overall satisfaction score above 72 percent, across the board lower than their overall scores from just two years ago. Consumer Reports says cellphone companies remain among the lowest-rated service providers it evaluates.

We pay a lot for our cellphones and wireless services and we expect a lot in return: rock-solid voice connections, seamless data downloads and world-class customer service. But apparently we don’t always feel that we get it.

Verizon topped the list of major carriers in this year’s subscriber survey, followed by Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T. The rankings are based on responses from 63,000 readers.

“Verizon stands out from the pack if you are a heavy-duty data user,” said Mike Gikas, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports. “They’re the Cadillac network. They’re pricey in some respects, but in terms of overall quality of service and availability of service, they are the overall leader.”

This confirms what J.D. Power and Associates found in its 2012 Wireless Network Quality Performance Study released in August: Verizon is consistently better than the average wireless carrier and much better than most of its competitors.

But your satisfaction can depend on where you live. The Consumer Reports survey looked at 23 metropolitan areas. It found the quality of cell service can vary from place to place. For example, Sprint is virtually tied with Verizon in St. Louis, but in last place (significantly below AT&T) in Chicago.

It’s interesting to note that three smaller companies had the highest marks for customer satisfaction in the Consumer Reports survey: Consumer Cellular, U.S. Cellular and Credo Mobile. U.S. Cellular, the biggest of this group (with service in 24 mostly Midwestern states), earned a reader score of 88 percent.

“They also offer an excellent experience for consumers and an affordable one, especially if you’re looking for a family plan,” Gikas said.

One group that was happier than most: AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile subscribers who have smartphones that connect to 4G networks. They were consistently more satisfied than customers with 3G service. In fact, when it comes to 4G service, AT&T had the fewest problems of any carrier.

“AT&T has been a basement dweller for several years now. A lot of people are unhappy with the service, except 4G customers. They seem to like the service from AT&T,” Gikas told me.

A tough bunch to please
People’s expectation of good service is much higher than it was just a few years ago.

 “They expect their smartphone to do whatever it’s supposed to do every time,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power and Associates.

Smartphone users practically live with the device in their hands. They notice the difference between a connection that takes a second and a fraction of a second. And when something goes wrong, they’re likely to hold a grudge against the company.

The ads promise more and we assume our cellphone company to deliver. For example, subscribers with 4G phones expect those high-speed connections everywhere they go. But 4G service isn’t available everywhere. 

“If you travel, there are still a lot of open patches where 4G is not available,” Parsons noted. “That frustrates people who want the service wherever they go.”

The potential downside of higher speeds
Consumer Reports cautions that faster phones can result in higher bills. It’s fun to use your phone to play online games and watch streaming video, but if you’re not careful you can really burn through the megabytes.

“Your monthly bill will double with a smartphone,” Gikas said.

And just as more people are upgrading to smartphones, Verizon and AT&T, the country’s two biggest wireless companies, no longer offer unlimited data plans to new customers.

As these “all-you-can-eat” data plans disappear, some heavy users may find that they go through their monthly allowance a lot sooner than expected.

A cheaper way to go
If you’re looking to spend less on cellphone service, consider a prepaid plan with no monthly service contract. The rates are lower, the phones have gotten better — you now have a greater choice of smartphones — and Consumer Reports survey shows that customer satisfaction is relatively high. 

You will pay more for the phone because there is no subsidy from the carrier. With the typical 2-year contract, the cost of that phone is rolled into your monthly rate. With prepaid service, you buy the phone upfront, so your monthly rate is lower.

“Over the course of about two years, you’ll end up paying less,” Gikas noted.

Consumer Reports’ top-rated prepaid carrier is TracFone. It offers inexpensive plans for people who don’t use their cell phone very often.

The editors say Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile are standouts for budget smartphones. They offer low-cost, unlimited plans for voice, text and data.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.