Grading the Big Four: How did your wireless carrier rate in 2013?

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The big wireless carriers have few qualms about charging customers for sending and receiving texts, despite the fact that providing the service costs them virtually nothing.

Your carrier is ripping you off.

And it may even be putting your life at risk. Law enforcement has pleaded with manufacturers to include device “kill switches” to thwart the tsunami of smartphone-driven street crime. But most phones don’t have a kill switch. Why? Because including one would eat into profits the carriers make from selling device insurance. Yup.

Though the carriers clearly have no respect for their customers, they do have to compete for our business. So let’s take a look back at 2013 to see which companies made things a little bit easier for consumers and which introduced unnecessary annoyances into our lives.


a minus

T-Mobile’s occasionally profane CEO, John Legere, has achieved the once unthinkable result of making the carrier wars interesting to people who aren’t device nerds. Not only did he spearhead a number of bold, industry-shaking moves, he did it while openly antagonizing the competition.

Legere truly is the 50 Cent of telecommunication CEOs.

Aside from sewing mad beef around the industry, T-Mobile has turned traditional plan schemes on their heads by introducing contract-free unsubsidized phones, early trade-up plans (even as other carriers have been extending their trade-in period), and free international data and texting. The moves have yielded strong user gains, and have prompted the other carriers to offer similar amenities.

In addition to reinventing service plans, T-Mobile—long stuck in the basement among the Big Four national carriers—can confidently assert that it currently offers consumers a better product than it did at this time last year. The company’s investments in its nationwide LTE network have borne fruit, earning it high marks in our nationwide LTE testing back in May. In addition, the company began the year by finally adding the iPhone to its roster, and snagging other premium handsets.

Big Magenta no longer seems resigned to being the discount also-ran of major U.S. carriers, and it’s forcing its rivals to react to its aggressive moves.


c plus

Verizon had a 2013 filled with annoying corporate moves but also peppered with some big advances that will benefit its customers.

Let’s start with the dumb side of the spectrum. In April, in a move that AT&T eventually aped, Verizon annoyingly lengthened its trade-in period from 20 to 24 months. But after being shamed by T-Mobile’s Jump upgrade program, which debuted over the summer, Verizon felt compelled to unveil its own device trade-up plan only a week later.


Keep your logo off our phones, Verizon.

In collaboration with Motorola, Verizon released a trio of exclusive Droid phones in July—including the Droid Ultra and the Droid Maxx—that were nothing special. But in a more egregious stroke of misguided corporation-think, Verizon went crazy tattooing its logo on devices. It wasn’t alone in doing so, but we would like to see this trend die in 2014—preferably, early in 2014.

We’re also tempted to give Verizon a big thumbs-down for permitting the NSA near-unfettered access to consumer metadata, but what service didn’t get caught doing that this year?

On the bright side, Verizon did some vigorous wheeling and dealing on its way to acquiring huge quantities of unused bandwidth, with the goal of creating one of the most robust and vast LTE networks in the country.

Big Red also appears to be making moves to build its own video-on-demand service to compete with Netflix. Though details about the form this service might take are sketchy, it can only lead to competition—among carriers and with Netflix—to the advantage of consumers.


c jpg

It might seem strange that we assigned Old Blue—the nation’s largest carrier and the winner of our nationwide speed tests (including fastest LTE service)—such a mediocre grade, but in our view AT&T earned it. Allow us to make our case.

Back in May, AT&T got caught sneaking in a small “administrative fee” of $0.61 per line per month. A quick computation shows that the company stands to reap an additional profit of $2.5 billion over the next five years, thanks to this bit of ledger legerdemain. An AT&T spokesperson told TechHive that the fee is “consistent with similar fees charged by other carriers … [and] will help cover certain expenses, such as interconnection and cell site rents and maintenance.”

Aio Wireless

If you thought Aio's services sounded a lot like T-Mobile, you weren't the only one.

It’s true that other carriers impose similarly nebulous fees, but AT&T’s decision to call this one an “administrative fee” stinks of a movie ticket website imposing a “handling” surcharge even though no actual hands participate in the ticketing process. Just be honest and call it a “we-need-money-to-make-the-books-work-out" fee. Or “operational charge” would work. Just be straight with us, AT&T.

On the service-plan front, AT&T seemed to spend most of the year reacting to T-Mobile, introducing its Next trade-up plan and contract-free Aio service weeks after T-Mobile led the way (as well as its own recently introduced no-contract plan).

On the positive side, AT&T announced this month that it had become the first of the Big Four U.S. carriers to offer international LTE roaming. Customers can purchase high-speed wireless throughout America’s Hat (aka Canada) with plans that range between $30 and $120 per month. The company has issued a vague promise that more countries will be coming in the next few months.

We’ll also give the company a thumbs-up for its campaign against texting while driving—an effort that included a surprising but poignant collaboration with famed German director Werner Herzog back in August.


d minus

Sprint managed to come in dead last in just about every category in our combined speed tests. In particular, its LTE network lagged far behind the competition (sometimes embarrassingly so).

What’s more, this year Sprint didn’t accomplish much that had any direct effect on consumers. The company spent the first half of 2013 embroiled in various massive takeover bids (in which Big Green was both the prospective acquirer and the potentially acquired), and it finally shut down its Nextel network over the summer in what turned out to be an expensive endeavor.

But none of that means much if you just purchased a smartphone with a two-year contract and your LTE coverage is crap.


No, this will not save your business, Sprint.

Wondering what else Sprint was up to? This summer, the company finally got Windows Phones. (Woo?) And like every other major carrier, the company scrambled to create its own annual trade-up plan—in this case, One Up. Though Sprint’s trade-in plan, which it unveiled in late September, turned out to be a far better deal than AT&T or Verizon’s, it was still slightly more expensive than T-Mobile’s.

The year was mostly dismal for Sprint and its long-suffering customers, but there may be some green shoots of life to look forward to in 2014. The company’s new high-speed Spark Service is slowly rolling out across major metropolitan areas, with the promise of peak speeds of 50 to 60 mbps. As a point of comparison, AT&T—which captured the top spot in our LTE tests—had an average download speed of 13.15 mbps and an average upload speed of 6.45 mbps (those are results from real-world tests, not advertised peaks).

Its late-year turnaround is the only thing that saved Sprint from an F.

This story, "Grading the Big Four: How did your wireless carrier rate in 2013?" was originally published by TechHive.

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