Verizon Wireless is the top major wireless carrier, AT&T has the best LTE service, but best overall in standard service is Consumer Cellular. Those are the top takeaways in Consumer Reports' annual survey of U.S. wireless service providers.
The survey questioned 63,253 wireless subscribers who are also Consumer Reports readers. Consumer Cellular took top place for standard service, with a reader score of 88 out of 100, while U.S. Cellular was second at 85 and Credo Mobile was third with 76.
However, those three services are not as widely available or as well known as the Big Four. Verizon took fourth place overall in standard service, but was first among the four big carriers, followed by Sprint, T-Mobile and, in last place, AT&T.
Not one of the big carriers had a total rating higher than 72. The non-profit consumer organization said that wireless service providers generally have the lowest ratings of any service providers it covers in consumer surveys.
Top-ranked Consumer Cellular is a national carrier that, interestingly enough, uses AT&T's network, and it scored first for the second straight year. Consumer Cellular specializes in providing phones and service to customers with straightforward needs, and it provides monthly billing without a contract.
AT&T scored worst-of-the-Big-Four in call quality, value and customer service, but its growing LTE network scored highest for speed and performance. Verizon had favorable scores in voice and data service quality, as well as for staff knowledge and issue resolution. The other three major carriers had low to medium rankings in these areas.
Verizon's LTE footprint is actually the largest, covering 300 million users in the U.S. and over 400 markets, compared with 150 million users and slightly over 100 markets for AT&T. By contrast, Sprint is just beginning to build its LTE system, with coverage in only 43 smaller markets, and T-Mobile's LTE is expected to start rolling out next year.
Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, noted that, while Consumer Reports itself tests and analyzes some factors to make its conclusions, other aspects, such as respondents rating the quality of service, is a survey by consumers and reflects consumer sentiments. He wondered if the results that reflected those sentiments "were based on lingering perceptions," since the major carriers have "made great strides" in improving their coverage and service in the last year or two.
Greengart told us he agreed with the survey about the quality of AT&T's LTE service "where it is actually deployed," and noted that the company is "actually ahead of schedule in LTE deployment compared to what they had promised." Greengart predicted that AT&T will be in a much better position for its LTE service in 2013, compared to this year.
The report also found that two-thirds of respondents who switched to prepaid plans, which bill a month in advance and have no contract, saved over $20 monthly. Among prepaid plans, TracFone was tops, followed by Straight Talk, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Net10, Virgin Mobile, MetroPCS, and AT&T GoPhone.
The report is available at the publication's Web site and in its January 2013 printed issue. The full report includes ratings of providers, smartphones and cell-phone retailers, and advice and tips about how to reduce data charges, choose an operating system, or save money overall on phone bills.