AT&T: Still the worst carrier?

Short answer: Yes. But the despised network bested the competition in one key area

AT&T may have ranked last in overall cell service, but it did get high marks for 4G.
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For the third straight year, AT&T placed dead last in Consumer Reports' annual cell phone service provider rankings, which suggests that the wireless carrier may have to spend some extra time rethinking possible. Coming in first place with the most satisfied customers was Verizon Wireless, followed by Sprint, and then T-Mobile. The survey of 63,253 cell phone subscribers gave Verizon top marks for the second year in a row for its superior voice, data, and customer service. But it wasn't exactly all bad news for AT&T. A few takeaways from the report:

1. AT&T bested the competition with 4G

Verizon has by far the largest LTE network in the U.S., yet AT&T actually beat its chief competitor in the next-gen network department with the highest overall score for 4G customer satisfaction. AT&T clients reported experiencing less problems, with fewer service interruptions, slowdown, or a general lack of service. It's a pretty big bright spot when you consider Apple's first LTE-supported phone, the iPhone 5, sold 5 million units in its first weekend of sales alone and sales continue to climb. We're very pleased, an AT&T spokesperson told CNET. "We're investing significantly to deliver unique advantages, including offering the nation's largest 4G network which enables the fastest iPhone 5 downloads and simultaneous talk and surf."

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2. Consumers are turning to pre-paid plans

More customers are starting to realize there's life outside of the big four — at least if you don't mind paying a higher upfront cost and not using a cutting-edge device (although that's already changing). Pre-paid, no-contract plans, such as the ones offered by Cricket and TracFone, are growing in popularity, with respondents claiming to save upwards of $20 a month on phone bills.

3. Verizon's lead is growing

Last year Verizon narrowly edged out Sprint by 1 point for first place. This year, it finished a full 6 points ahead. What happened? Consumers with 4G plans were generally more satisfied than those still with 3G service, and Verizon's lead in that category may be paying off. "Sprint's significantly smaller 4G [network] could play a role in its customers' lower ratings," says David Goldman at CNN Money.

4. Shared data plans are actually moneymakers

There was a lot of grumbling when Verizon and AT&T unveiled (somewhat confusing) shared data plans that encourage higher data usage in lieu of talk and texting. But the two carriers have reported that the plans are actually making them more money, says Goldman, as consumers continue to quietly poke at their screens and gobble up gigabytes.

Sources: CNET, PC World, USA Today, CNN Money

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