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Release Date: 12/06/2011

Smaller Carriers Top Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T

Consumer Cellular and U.S. Cellular Sit Atop the New Consumer Reports Cell Service Provider Ratings; AT&T Remains at the Bottom

January 2012 CoverYONKERS, NY — When it comes to cell-phone carriers smaller may be better, according to a new satisfaction survey of Consumer Reports online subscribers.  At the top of the Ratings for standard service providers were 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.

The full report features carrier Ratings in 22 metropolitan markets and can be found in the January 2012 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

In this year’s annual Consumer Reports survey on cell-phone service providers, more than 66,000 ConsumerReports.org 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 FCC to merge with its better rival.

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 smart phones. A major carrier is still a leading option for many consumers.”

How to Cut Your Cell-phone Bill

  • Don’t automatically buy from the company store. 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.

  • Consider a lower-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. It had the best deal most often – in more than one out of three cases. Savings usually ranged from $30-40 per month over pricier rivals such as Verizon and AT&T, though you might find a smaller selection of the hottest smart phones with smaller carriers such as Consumer Cellular.

  • Use Alternative Services.  Bypassing the carrier and using third-party services for texting and voice calls can be a real money-saver. New apps such as Heywire and TigerText let you send text messages for free over your data connection. With most carriers, that means you won’t have to pay 10 cents per text or $5 to $30 a month for limited-to-unlimited messaging plans.

  • Max out on Wi-Fi.  Consumers should avoid using their plan’s allotment of data by tapping into the rising number of Wi-Fi networks that are available. Those who own 4G phones should set them to connect only to 3G whenever its adequate such as when texting or streaming music.

Inside Consumer Reports January 2012 Issue

The full report includes detailed Ratings of cell-phone service nationwide and in 22 cities; Ratings of smart phones and cell-phones; tips for choosing the best plan; latest information on the risks of cell-phone radiation; an Android vs. iPhone comparison; and more tips on how consumers save money on their phone bills can all be found in the January 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, available wherever magazines are sold and also online at www.ConsumerReports.org

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications.   Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

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