Survey: Mobile phone service improving

Cell-phone service has become significantly better, according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Contract terms for cell-phone service are less onerous, and there were fewer problems with call quality.
Based on 51,740 responses from ConsumerReports.org subscribers, 60 percent of readers were completely or very satisfied with their cell-phone service. That appears to be a substantial improvement over last year. The improvement means cellular satisfaction is now closer to the average among all services CR rates; it had previously been among the worst.
Verizon stands out
Verizon is a standout cell-phone carrier for most people, according to CR’s exclusive survey of readers in 23 cities. The company received high marks from survey respondents in overall satisfaction and customer service, and service is available in most of the country.
T-Mobile’s overall satisfaction is similar to Verizon in most cities, though it doesn’t match Verizon in connectivity or customer service. It’s among the least expensive carriers for Web access and for text and multimedia messages.
Also worth considering are AT&T and Sprint, depending on the city.
Improvements in service, business practices
What’s behind the surge in satisfaction? There were fewer problems with connectivity, the ability to widely receive service that’s free of static and dropped calls. Overall, 42 percent of readers reported that they had no major complaints about service, up from 29 percent in CR’s previous survey. In particular, they were less likely to cite as a top complaint the automatic extension of the cell-phone contract as a result of changing their service.
Carriers have curbed such practices because of increasing competition and the threat of consumer-rights legislation in Congress. Added pressure came from more than 100 class-action and other lawsuits coast to coast, including one by the Minnesota attorney general, and several key court rulings favorable to consumers.
In apparent response to the legal and regulatory action, all the carriers have stopped automatically extending contracts when consumers make changes to their service plan. And now all but Alltel reduce early-termination fees of $175 to $200 as the contract term progresses.
How to cut cellular bills
There’s no need to overpay for cellular service. CR recommends five ways to trim the bill:
— Consider going prepaid. Prepaid cellular, now used by 15 percent of cell customers, is no longer just for those with poor credit. In a separate analysis of survey respondents who used prepaid, 76 percent bought it for lower cost, compared with monthly plans, and 70 percent chose it because they use their cell phone infrequently.
— Review plan minutes. Someone who talks 700 minutes a month, the national average for cell subscribers, might be drawn to AT&T’s 900-minute Nationwide plan for $60 per month. (AT&T doesn’t offer a 700-minute plan.) But that plan and most others offer free unlimited night, weekend and in-network minutes.
— Consider going local. National plans offer a “home” area as big as the lower 48 states to avoid roaming fees. But someone might not need that much space for many, perhaps most, of their calls. Consider local plans offered by Alltel, Boost and Metro PCS.
— Bundle multimedia messages. More of CR’s readers are using their cell phones for text messaging (63 percent) and photos (35 percent), and to surf the Internet (29 percent). A big messager should consider a monthly bundle. T-Mobile recently had the lowest rates: 400 messages for $5.
— Skip cell-phone insurance. If someone loses or damages a phone, buy a cheap, basic phone or use an old phone until the contract commitment is up and a new phone is available with a new contract.

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