5 On Your Side

Cutting Through the Cell Phone Static

Posted December 17, 2007 4:38 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2007 10:00 p.m. EST

Buyers once again placed cell phone service among the lowest-rated products in a recent Consumer Reports survey.

Fewer than half the people of the people who responded to the survey said they were completely or very satisfied with their service. Those unhappy customers have joined in the more than 100 class-action lawsuits against carriers in the past five years.

Sprint advertisements tout fast-moving service: "People taking care of business at the speed of light. That's business at Sprint speed."

Sprint speed, however, apparently is not good enough for many. Consumer Reports' latest survey of cell-phone users rated Sprint among the lowest of the five major carriers.

“This is the sixth year of our survey. Sprint was consistently among the lowest-rated in satisfaction, dropped calls and customer service," Consumer Reports’ Rosalind Tordesillas said.

Users of AT&T—home of the acclaimed iPhone—reported problems with static and gaps in service in many of the 20 cities surveyed.

Of the more than 47,000 cell phone users Consumer Reports surveyed, only 45 percent were highly satisfied with their service.

"Among the top complaints were the required contract extensions when you change your phone or plan. But recently, several big carriers have announced plans to eliminate these mandatory contract extensions,” Tordesillas said.

Controversial early termination fees are also being re-examined. Several major carriers have agreed to prorate them over the course of the contract.

Poor service – including dropped calls and poor coverage – was the top reason people switched their cell-service carrier in the past three years, the survey showed.

Among the better cell providers in the survey was Verizon Wireless for its better-than-average phone service. Alltel, a smaller provider, also got high marks.

"If you're looking for a new carrier, your best bet is to start with one that did well in our survey,” Tordesillas recommended.

Consumer Reports also urged buyers to take advantage of 14- to 30-day free trial periods that carriers offer. That allows customers unhappy with the service to cancel it without paying fees or penalties.

When moving to a new cell phone provider, Consumer Reports recommends considering a one-year plan. The phone might cost more, but that price comes along with the flexibility to change service in a year.