Got Signal? Choosing the Best Cell Phone Carrier

In recent years, cell phone usage has sky rocketed. Consumer reviews and tech columnists have devoted volumes to the subject of which phone to choose. The loyal followers of the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Palm, the Sidekick, ect, have engaged in fiery online debates over which one is better.

Relatively little has been written, however, on comparing cell phone carriers. To a considerable extent, a cell phone is only as good as the carrier that provides the signal. We’ll see here that evaluating carriers and their monthly plans is every bit as involved as reviewing the cell phones they run on.

J.D.Power and Associates have reported that the quality of *all* cell phone services has become so consistently high across the board that there was no longer a reason to even own a “land line” anymore. Paradoxically, ask any of your friends about cell phone reception horror stories and they’ll have plenty of fireside tales to tell you. J.D. Power and Associates also asserts that call carrier customers who did not have their complaints resolved by customer service were six times more likely to switch carriers. And in fact, this happens all the time. If one isn’t satisfied with one’s cell phone, it’s easy enough to get another one. But dropping a cell phone carrier is another matter. The advent of phone carrier contracts with cancellation penalty fees has largely come about to combat cell phone carrier dissatisfaction. Even the advent of 3G Networks, which was announced with great fanfare, still has not quelled a considerable percentage of cell phone customers that are not happy with their carriers. According to comScore Networks, one in four cell phone customers are not satisfied with their wireless carrier. With such an astonishingly large statistic, it’s clear that cell phone signal technology is still in its adolescence. Keeping this in mind, let’s now compare carriers.

According to comScore, Verizon Wireless has consistently been rated the best carrier in terms of coverage and customer service. Overall, only six percent of customers break their service contract.

AT&T/Cingular come in second, just behind Verizon. Alltel’s customer service contract breakers are more numerous, coming in at 9 percent, while Sprint/Nextel have an even higher dissatisfaction rating at 11 percent. At the bottom of the heap is T-Mobile, with 15% of customers wanting to break out of contract obligations.

But there might be more to this than meets the eye. The above comScore survey is not location specific and uses the percentage of customers breaking the service contract as the litmus test for popularity. A J.D. Power and Associates survey does indeed confirm Verizon as the leader, but mentions that this is particularly true in the Northeast, where Verizon’s coverage is the strongest. T-Mobile, with the lowest rating in the comScore survey, actually ranked first in the Southwest, according to J.D. Power. Moreover, Verizon also ranks lower in terms of the phones that run its service, which tend to use CDMA technology rather than GSM. As a result, Verizon phones tend to not accept SIM cards (Subscriber Identity Modules) which prevents their use when travelling overseas. Verizon’s rates also ranked considerably higher than its rivals, and though its customer service gets high marks, its bills tend to be confusing to read.

J.D. Powers also claims that Sprint has a strong popularity in the Southwest, yet at the same time it concedes that Sprint also ranks lowest in call quality. The latter statistic was also confirmed by a PC Magazine survey. By contrast, PC Magazine ranks T-Mobile as the best carrier in terms of pricing, and second only to Alltel in service plan options. T-Mobile also offers its service on a wide variety of phones and smartphones with GSM/SIM card compatibility enabling international use.

Prepaid cell phones deserve their own category all together. Virgin Mobile won the highest marks, just ahead of TracFone and T-Mobile respectively. Verizon, ATT&T, follow in order of decreasing popularity, with poor Sprint/ Nextel once again at the bottom of the heap.

Oftentimes people let their choice of service providers be determined by what phone they choose. Let me suggest that you might just as easily consider the reverse route; find the best carrier for your needs and chose your phone from there.

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