Finding the best cell phone providers

One in five people got an unexpectedly high bill this past year. That's according to Consumer Reports' just-released cell phone survey which was conducted in 23 cities, including Philadelphia. Nearly 60,000 subscribers weighed in to help determine the best services and money-savers.

"We're so confident in the improvements we've made to our network, our phones, our plans," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse can be heard saying in a TV commercial.

The confidence of Sprint's CEO is backed by some pretty rave reviews from the company's customers.

"For years, Sprint has been one of lower-rated cell phone companies in our survey. But this year we saw a dramatic improvement," Donato Vaccaro of Consumer Reports said

Sprint tied with Verizon for Best Choice Overall among nationally available carriers for contract service. Verizon Wireless has an edge in voice service overall, but Sprint scored better in some aspects of customer service and most Sprint customers said the carrier offers good value.

Meantime, AT&T is solidly in last place again for almost everything from customer support to problems making calls to value for the money.

"My iPhone bill is just, it's over the top. There're times I got bills for $200," former AT&T customer Dale Wilson said.

If you're looking for a cell phone service with no contract, a small company called Consumer Cellular came out on top.

"People found it offers great value. But it has a limited choice of phones," Vaccaro said.

If you prefer a greater selection of phones, Consumer Reports says consider T-Mobile, which now offers most of its phones, even smart phones, with a no-contract option.

Keep in mind if you do decide to buy a phone without a contract, Consumer Reports says the phone will probably cost more, but your monthly fees will probably be less.

No contract phones are best suited for people who only make occasional calls and text, but don't surf the web or use their phone for email.

They're also good if you want a simple first phone for a tween or teenager.

AT&T sent Action News a statement. It says in part, "We continually look for new ways to improve the customer experience…Our dropped call rate is the equivalent of just one call in a thousand. In Pennsylvania...we've invested more than $150...enhancing our network."

AT&T also says it has the nation's fastest mobile broadband network.

The company's full statement is at the bottom of this story.

Here are some helpful tips:

    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. 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 or 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.


    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.

    In Pennsylvania specifically we've invested more than $150 million in the first half of 2010 enhancing our network across the state – adding new cell sites, expanding our mobile broadband network and adding more capacity to better serve our customers.

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