Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile Bested by Smaller Carriers: Consumer Reports

A Consumer Reports survey indicates prepaid customers and those with smaller service providers are happier overall with service.

When it comes to mobile phone carriers, smaller may be better, according to a satisfaction survey of Consumer Reports' online subscribers. At the top of the ratings for standard service providers are Consumer Cellular, a national carrier that uses AT&T's network, and U.S. Cellular, which operates in just over half the United States. Credo, which offers service to much of the country on Sprint's network, also bested the major carriers.

AT&T, America's second-largest carrier, again found itself at the bottom of the ratings, according to survey results.

In this year's annual Consumer Reports survey on cell phone service providers, more than 66,000 subscribers weighed in about their service and customer support experiences with standard service (billed at month's end) and prepaid providers.

Of the four major U.S. national cell phone standard service providers, Verizon and Sprint were the better-rated carriers. Verizon had an edge over Sprint in texting and in knowledgeable support staff, but Sprint rated better in value. T-Mobile was below Verizon and Sprint but continued to rate "significantly better" than the higher-priced carrier AT&T, which recently withdrew its application to the Federal Communications Commission to merge with T-Mobile.

TracFone was rated one of the better carriers among prepaid cell phone service providers, with Straight Talk, T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile. All of the top four prepaid carriers received above average scores for value. Readers who prepaid for their cell phone service were more satisfied overall than respondents with standard service.

"Our survey indicates that prepaid customers and those with smaller standard service providers are happier overall with their cell phone service," said Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports. "However, these carriers aren't for everyone. Some are only regional, and prepaid carriers tend to offer few or no smartphones. A major carrier is still a leading option for many consumers."

The report found that two-thirds of cell phones are bought at carrier stores, but Consumer Reports has found that prices can be lower at warehouse stores and mass merchandisers, suggesting consumers shouldn't automatically buy their handsets at company stores, and recommended considering a low-priced carrier. When Consumer Reports compared 100 plans to similar alternatives in 21 matchups covering the full spectrum of plans, both prepaid and standard, Consumer Cellular came out on top with the best deal in more than one out of three cases. Savings usually ranged from $30 to $40 per month over pricier rivals such as Verizon and AT&T, though users might find a smaller selection of desirable smartphones with smaller carriers.

Consumers should avoid using their plan's allotment of data by tapping into the rising number of WiFi networks that are available. Also, bypassing the carrier and using third-party services for texting and voice calls can be a real money-saver, according to Consumer Reports. Those who own 4G phones should set them to connect only to 3G whenever it's adequate such as when texting or streaming music. New apps such as Heywire and TigerText let users send text messages for free over a data connection, which means users won't have to pay 10 cents per text or $5 to $30 a month for limited-to-unlimited messaging plans.