AT&T still at bottom of Consumer Reports rankings, but boasts best 4G network

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AT&T held onto its last place position in Consumer Reports’ ranking of the four major U.S. cellphone carriers. But the company can point to one bright spot in the annual ratings published by Consumer Reports Thursday: AT&T’s 4G service garnered the least complaints from customers.

In the Consumer Reports survey of 63,253 cellphone subscribers, Verizon Wireless landed at the top of the heap, earning high marks for voice and data service quality and customer service. Sprint and T-Mobile received average ratings, finishing second and third, respectively. AT&T placed last for its voice and text quality.

Verizon also was No. 1 in last year’s Consumer Reports survey.

LTE gives AT&T an edge

Though Verizon led the pack in cellphone service in this year’s ratings, AT&T’s 4G LTE network was tops for subscribers—or, rather, it received fewer complaints than any other carrier’s 4G service.

PCWorld’s 4G LTE speed tests reflected customer perceptions earlier this year. AT&T had the fastest 4G download speeds of any carrier at 9.12 mbps.

Verizon has the most robust 4G network, as it was the first American carrier to offer LTE in December 2010. AT&T and Sprint have both since introduced LTE for their customers, and T-Mobile plans to launch its own service next year.

The Consumer Reports survey arrives a couple months after the September release of the iPhone 5, Apple’s first LTE-supported smartphone. With Apple having sold 5 million of the new phones during its first weekend of sales, customer perceptions of carriers’ 4G offerings could shift dramatically.

Pre-paid plans an attractive option

Besides its 4G ranking, AT&T could also take solace in the fact that Consumer Cellular, a national carrier that uses AT&T’s network, garnered positive reviews for its no-contract, standard service in Consumer Reports’ ranking of carriers offering monthly billing without a contractual requirement.

Consumer Reports found that no-contract plans are growing in popularity because they save consumers more than $20 a month, according to survey respondents. Consumer Cellular and TracFone ranked at the top of the pre-paid providers for offering value and quality voice and text.

“Some smaller carriers that scored respectably in our ratings and offer low-priced plans, such as Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile, now offer fairly sophisticated smartphones,” Consumer Reports’ electronics editor Paul Reynolds said in a statement announcing the survey results, which appear in the January 2013 issue of the magazine. “And you can even save by switching a phone from a major carrier that’s coming off contract to a pre-paid plan.”

Many smartphone users worry that the high upfront cost of buying a top-of-the-line phone without a contract will negate any savings from going with a lower-priced carrier, but that might not be the case.

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