Among the top four wireless network carriers in the United States, Verizon led its competitors as the highest-rated major carrier, based on the results of a survey of 63,253 subscribers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
The company received favorable scores for voice and data service quality, as well as for support attributes like staff knowledge and resolution of issues. Competitors Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T each received mostly middling to low marks, particularly for voice and text service quality, with AT&T bringing up the rear for the third year in a row.
Despite the last-place finish, AT&T's 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network was rated the most favorably of any carrier. Its users reported the fewest problems with that higher-speed service, which most new smartphones now use, according to the survey.
"Verizon stands out from the pack if you are a heavy-duty data user," Mike Gikas, Consumer Reports senior electronics editor, told NBC News. "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."
TracFone was among the top-rated prepaid providers, receiving high marks for value, voice and text. Like Consumer Cellular--a national carrier that uses AT&T's network--TracFone specializes in those who seek simple, low-cost phone service. Consumer Cellular also received high marks across the board in Consumer Reports' ratings of standard (monthly bill) carriers for offering the simplicity of monthly billing without a contractual commitment.
Overall, the report found that no-contract plans can be major cost-savers for consumers. Two-thirds of survey respondents who switched to prepaid plans, which typically lack a contract commitment and bill each month in advance, saved more than $20 a month by switching to prepaid.
The report noted those savings could allow wireless customers to quickly recoup the cost of the phone itself, which can be higher if they don't make a contractual commitment. For consumers seeking prepaid service providers offering more than just basic communications plans, there are a growing number of options, such as T-Mobile USA, Virgin Mobile and others.
"Some smaller carriers that scored respectably in our ratings and offer low-priced plans, such as Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile, now offer fairly sophisticated smartphones," Paul Reynolds, Consumer Reports electronics editor, said. "And you can even save by switching a phone from a major carrier that's coming off contract to a prepaid plan."
The full report includes detailed ratings of cell phone service providers in 23 metropolitan markets; ratings of smartphone and mobile phone retailers; data-hogging phone habits to avoid; advice on choosing the right phone and plan; a comparison of the Google Android, Apple iOS and Windows Phone operating systems; and tips on how consumers save money on their cell phone bills.