Best Cell Phone Carriers: Small Providers Top the Big Four in New Consumer Reports Survey

Odds are you haven’t made any changes to your cell service in years. That’s too bad. According to Consumer Reports National Research Center’s recent survey of about 90,000 subscribers, nearly half of the people who switched cell phone carriers in the past year saw their monthly rates drop by $20 or more. And roughly 40 percent said they enjoyed more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service. However, only 6 percent of our readers switched cell phone carriers—perhaps more should consider shopping around.

Many of the most satisfied respondents are those who use smaller cell phone providers such as Consumer Cellular, Cricket, Page Plus Cellular, Republic Wireless, and Ting Wireless. Exceptional scores for value helped propel these cellphone providers to the top for overall customer satisfaction. These companies offer lower costs and responsive, knowledgeable staff members. And some of them compensate subscribers who use less service than they've planned for. For instance, Republic Wireless and Ting Wireless charge customers only for the minutes, texts, and data actually used—not what consumers signed up for.

Three of the Big Four cell phone carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—lined the bottom of the customer-satisfaction barrel, while T-Mobile led the Big Four in terms of overall customer satisfaction. Sprint had a poor showing for both its traditional, monthly billed service and its prepaid service. Both AT&T and Verizon got good marks for voice, text, and Web service.

Despite the relatively low scores, 80 percent of the survey respondents get their service from the Big Four cell phone carriers, and 81 percent of those respondents are either AT&T or Verizon customers. The Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed results for these and other cellphone providers in 31 metro areas across the country, using responses from 29,000 subscribers. Consumer Cellular was the top-rated provider in six locations, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. Check our cell phone carriers guide for more details.

Tips for Choosing a Plan

If the phone in your hand costs close to $100 a month to feed, it’s time to make some changes—even if you’re inclined to stick with your service provider. As a general rule, you shouldn’t spend more than $25 to $50 a month per phone line above the cost of the phone itself. If you are thinking about making a change, first check out our survey results. Then follow these steps to make the best choice.

  1. Round up your best provider options. Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers benefits people with modest data needs (Web browsing, e-mail, Facebook) and little lust for the hot phone of the moment. Heavy data users, especially those looking for three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with the Big Four.
  2. Confirm the coverage. The promise of coverage is the number one reason our survey participants cited for switching plans—and that gives large carriers such as AT&T and Verizon a distinct advantage. They have the country quite well-covered with high-speed 4G Internet service. There’s no point in finding a great deal if it doesn’t let you receive phone calls in your home or office. Virtually all carriers provide maps on their websites with ZIP code, address, or local landmark prompts to confirm coverage. Don’t rely on those alone. They don’t account for small dead zones created by natural and man-made obstacles. You should also make sure you can cancel service and return the phone if a coverage problem like that crops up. For some carriers, including Sprint and Verizon, the grace period is a brief 14 days. They’ll charge you a $35 restocking fee as well. Before settling on a carrier, invite friends with various services to break out their phones so you can assess how good each carrier’s signal is in your home, office and favorite haunts.
  3. Count your phone lines. This one’s easy: You + partner + dependents.
  4. Do the math. For smartphone users, the biggest charge is usually related to data use. Most people can live with 500 megabytes to 1 gigabyte per phone per month—especially if they confine their cellular-data activities to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and receiving e-mails without photos, videos, and other large attachments. It’s always good to save tasks like those, plus video calls and media streaming, for when you have Wi-Fi access. But maybe you stream a fair amount of music and video when you commute. If that’s so, you’ll probably need 2GB to 3GB a month. And if your eyes are permanently glued to YouTube while you’re on the go consider 4GB or more. You should also note that T-Mobile lets its customers enjoy content from popular music and video streaming services such as Netflix and Pandora without dipping into the data allowance. The Big Four Carriers offer unlimited texts and voice minutes with their plans. For providers that don’t, factor in about 200 to 300 minutes and several hundred texts per phone. That should add $15 to $25 per line to your costs.
  5. Beware of weird pricing. Sometimes it makes financial sense to purchase more data than you need. AT&T provides a good example. The carrier charges a $25 access fee per phone for data buckets of 5GB or less. (The 5GB of data, which are shareable, cost $50.) But if you choose the company’s 8GB plan, that fee falls to $15 per phone. (The 8GB of data cost $80.) Do the arithmetic, and you’ll find that if you have four phones on the 80GB plan, the total cost is $140. The total would actually be more—$150—for the same four phones on the 5GB bucket.
  6. Finally: Stay away from two-year contracts. These have lost popularity, but they are still available at AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. In addition to hefty early-termination fees, you might have to contend with a hefty monthly $40-per-phone access fee.

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