AT&T Fingered as Worst Carrier By Consumer Reports

iPhone owners have long had their frustrations with AT&T. So when over half of the AT&T respondents to a Consumer Reports wireless carrier satisfaction survey were iPhone owners, it's maybe unsurprising that they finished last. It's still disappointing, though. UPDATED:

AT&T's the only carrier to see a "significant" drop in overall satisfaction compared to last year, while dark horse US Cellular wrestled the top score away from Verizon.

The carriers were rated in value, voice service, and customer support. Sprint also had a strong showing, pulling even with Verizon. Which leaves T-Mo trailing and AT&T languishing, despite having some of the best hardware out there.

Of course, the survey was strictly of Consumer Reports readers, who have their own sets of priorities and concerns. And it was only a year ago that we found out AT&T had the fastest network around—when it worked at all. Still, a tough knock for the company, and another reminder that a Verizon iPhone could spell relief to a whole lot of people.

Update: AT&T sent us the following statement:

We take this seriously and we continually look for new ways to improve the customer experience. The fact is wireless customers have choices and a record number of them chose AT&T in the third quarter, significantly more than our competitors. Hard data from independent drive tests confirms AT&T has the nation's fastest mobile broadband network with our nearest competitor 20 percent slower on average nationwide and our largest competitor 60 percent slower on average nationwide. And, our dropped call rate is within 1/10 of a percent—the equivalent of just one call in a thousand—of the industry leader.

CONSUMER REPORTS: AT&T NAMED WORST CELL-PHONE SERVICE PROVIDER
U.S. Cellular Surpasses Former Top Provider Verizon Wireless;
January Report Also Features Tips for Avoiding Bill Shock

YONKERS, NY ― AT&T is now the worst-rated cell-phone service carrier according to a new survey of Consumer Reports readers. U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier that provides service in 26 states, beat out the long-standing top provider Verizon Wireless with outstanding marks for value, voice service and customer support. The full article also features carrier Ratings in 23 metropolitan markets and is in the January 2011 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

In this year's version of an annual Consumer Reports survey on cell-phone carriers, more than 58,000 ConsumerReports.org subscribers weighed in about their service and customer support experiences with contract and no-contract providers.

AT&T was the only carrier whose scores for overall satisfaction dropped significantly since last year. Verizon Wireless remains among the better performers, but Sprint has pulled even with the carrier in overall satisfaction. The carrier actually even scored better than Verizon in some aspects of customer service, a remarkable turnaround from past years when that was a weak point for the company. T-Mobile was only slightly behind those two carriers in overall satisfaction.

More than half of the AT&T customers surveyed owned an iPhone, the Apple smart-phone that is currently available exclusively from the carrier. Consumer Reports data, reflecting all versions of the phone, found that iPhone owners were much less satisfied with their carrier and rated data service (Web and e-mail) lower than owners of smart phones on other carriers that, like the iPhone, have a host of apps to encourage heavy data use.
"Our survey suggests that an iPhone from Verizon Wireless, which is rumored, could indeed be good news for iPhone fans," said Paul Reynolds, Electronics Editor for Consumer Reports.

How to Avoid Bill Shock & Cut Cell-Phone Costs

One in five survey respondents reported receiving an unexpectedly high cell-phone bill in the previous year, often for exceeding their plan's voice, text or data limits – an experience called "bill shock." Half of those respondents were hit for at least $50, and one in five for more than $100. Here's some ways consumers can avoid "bill shock" and cut cell-phone costs.

* Monitor use and act as needed. Consumers should check their use midway through their billing cycle via device settings or online. Pageonce.com sells smart-phone apps that monitor usage and sends users texts or e-mail warnings about overages.
* Don't overbuy minutes. Consumers should review the voice minutes they have not used in the past six months and consider switching to a plan with fewer billable daytime/anytime minutes, provided it offers the same free-talk time benefits.
* Avoid termination fees. Sixteen percent of respondents with a contract wanted to switch carriers but didn't want to get hit with early-termination fees that can run as high as $350 per phone early in the contract term. Penalties gradually decline as consumers get further into the contract period. Consider transferring the contract to someone else for a $20 to $25 fee through Celltradeusa.com or Cellswapper.com. To avoid being stuck with a disappointing carrier, test the phone and service during the 15 – to 30-day trial period, consumers who quit a new contract can port their number to another carrier without penalty.
* Weigh monthly costs. The purchase price of the phone, especially a smart phone, can be a surprisingly small contributor to the total cost of owning it over, say, a two-year period. That's especially true for T-Mobile smart phones, which can be bought with or without a contract, at differing prices and fees.

No-Contract Service

More than 90 percent of Consumer Reports survey respondents' phones were serviced under a contract. Those with no-contract cell-phone service said they made far fewer calls and rarely used data, and perhaps due to their simpler needs were more satisfied overall. Among no-contract service providers, Consumer Cellular scored highest for satisfaction followed by TracFone. AT&T GoPhone was the worst provider in this category receiving relatively low marks for value and voice service.

No-contract service is generally most suitable for light use, but options are expanding beyond bare-bones basics. There are now more conventional phones that provide data service without a contract, a change from the past. And carriers that specialize in no-contract service, including Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are offering more smart phones. Verizon and T-Mobile now offer most of their phones, smart and regular with or without a contract, but customers will pay more for the device itself.

[Consumer Reports; Image credit: Houston Chronicle]