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January 2007 send to a friend printable version
Best cell service
CLOSE CALL Alltel and perennial leader Verizon earned comparable reader scores in three metro areas in our survey.
Best cell service
42,921 CR readers speak

Tired of dropped calls, “service not available” messages, busy signals, and kkkrrrrrcchhhhhh! static in your ear? Then listen up. Our exclusive survey can show you where to get significantly better cell service.

In our fifth annual survey of cell-phone users, Verizon came out at or near the top in the 20 metropolitan areas we surveyed, as it has in years past. But Alltel, a relatively small carrier that primarily serves the midsection of the country, is emerging as a formidable challenger. Another provider, T-Mobile, is also giving Verizon a run for its (and your) money. In other words, consumers now have more than one decent choice in many places, a positive sign in an industry whose notoriously lackluster performance could only benefit from some real competition.

Almost 43,000 readers took our survey, conducted in September 2006 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The survey covered key service issues such as call quality, how well inquiries and complaints were handled, and billing problems.

The 20-city Ratings (available to subscribers) also show the major carriers that generally ended up at the bottom for service, according to our readers. Those include Cingular and Sprint. Nextel, a frequent bottom dweller in earlier surveys, merged with Sprint in 2005.

Among our other findings:
  • Cell service still leaves a lot to be desired. As a group, cellular carriers scored only 66 on a scale of 0 to 100 for overall satisfaction. (A 100 would mean that all readers were completely satisfied.) That's worse than many of the other services we cover in our surveys, and in a league with other perennial low-scorers, such as cable TV and computer tech support.
  • Call quality remains an aggravation for many cell phone users. In fact, 54 percent of our readers who switched carriers during the past three years attributed their decision to poor phone service, including dropped calls and no service at home. By contrast, 33 percent were motivated to switch by the promise of a better price.
  • Most consumers aren’t ready to give up their landlines and go all wireless, all the time. Someday that may happen, but probably not until cell-service quality improves significantly and its 911 issues are more fully resolved (see our January 2006 report on Phoning 911). This year 5 percent of our respondents told us that they currently have a cell phone but no landline at home.

SWITCHING CARRIERS 1-2-3

If you’re ready to switch your cell service, here’s how to find a carrier more likely to meet your needs:

1. Start at the top. If you live in or near one of the 20 metro areas covered by our survey, focus your search on the carriers at the top of that list. Carriers that scored within five points of number one are also worth considering, because they’re statistically about the same. In most of the 20 areas we covered, you’ll have up to three carriers from which to choose. If you live in an area not represented in our survey, see the Quick Picks (available to subscribers) for some advice.

To choose among the top carriers, check their online coverage maps, paying special attention to where you live, work, and travel. Because those maps can vary widely in detail and accuracy, however, go a step further and ask people you know who travel the same streets or make calls from the same buildings whether their carrier provides consistently good service.

If you often use your phone in rural areas or outside the U.S., you’ll also want to consider which network the carrier operates on. The major digital networks are CDMA (code division multiple access) and GSM (global system for mobile). The advantage of the former is that many CDMA phones incorporate analog backup for roaming in areas where a digital signal is unavailable. Many GSM phones, however, provide coverage in other countries, a plus for the globetrotters among us.

Once you choose a carrier, be sure to take advantage of whatever trial period it offers. If you find that service is poor or nonexistent in places where you need it, cancel that contract and try another high-rated carrier from our list.

2. Pick a plan. If you’ve already settled on a carrier, you can go directly to its Web site and compare the plans it offers. As we’ve noted in the past, however, you might have to poke around a little to find the cheapest plan the carrier offers, or else call the carrier and ask.

Comparing plans from different carriers is relatively simple at Web sites such as Letstalk.com (click on Service Plans, then Compare Plans).

If price is your primary concern, the easiest way to compare is on a per-minute basis. For example, when we recently checked rates for Tampa, Fla., Sprint and Verizon were both offering 450-minute plans for $39.99 a month, or about 9 cents a minute. T-Mobile didn’t have a 450-minute plan but instead offered 600 minutes for the same $39.99, or about 7 cents a minute.

If you make few cell-phone calls or want the phone primarily in case of a roadside emergency, consider a prepaid or “pay as you go” plan. In comparing prepaid plans, pay particular attention to what they charge per minute, how soon minutes expire, and whether your minutes can be rolled over. Although we haven’t rated prepaid carriers, some of the major providers are T-Mobile, TracFone, Verizon, and Virgin. You can buy prepaid phones and refill minutes at electronics and office supply stores, as well as online.

3. Bid goodbye to your old carrier. As long as your contract has expired, that will be easy. Just ask your new carrier to switch your existing (and, by law, portable) cell number to the new handset. However, if you still have months to go on your contract, the situation is trickier, especially if you face a whopping early-termination fee. If you’re desperately unhappy with your plan, you may just want to pay the fee and move on. Much as we hate to say it, coughing up a penalty of, say, $150 to get out of the deal may be no worse than paying $50 month after month for service you can barely tolerate.