Which mobile data provider is best? (And will you make a switch?)

Find out which carrier gets the most cheers -- and which the most jeers -- from our 2014 survey respondents.

What do you use a smartphone for most? For its data, of course. So we set out for the second year in a row to find out which mobile service provider gives you the most comprehensive and reliable data network coverage, the fastest upload and download speeds, and overall, the most bang for the buck.

We did this by turning to the people who actually use the services -- you and other Computerworld readers. We conducted a 5-week-long online survey in the fall of 2014 asking smartphone users to rate their providers in a variety of categories: average upload speeds, average download speeds, availability of connection, reliability of connection, performance relative to cost, technical support, selection of phone models and customer service/billing.

Respondents were given five choices for each category: very satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, dissatisfied and very dissatisfied. We tallied the results from our 652 respondents and came up with the winners and the losers -- including a new leader in customer satisfaction.

The vast majority of our survey respondents -- 90% -- use one of the four most popular U.S. cellular service carriers: 39% use Verizon Wireless, 27% use AT&T, 13% use T-Mobile and 11% use Sprint. But while those are the only providers we've actually rated in this story, we did use all survey responses (including those from customers of smaller carriers) when tallying overall satisfaction results, mobile data use and other general statistics. (For detailed information about the survey and how we crunched the numbers, see "How the survey was conducted and graded.")

We asked a variety of other questions as well, such as what activities people use mobile data networks for, how much they pay for their service, why they chose their mobile provider, whether they believe their carrier protects their private data and more. Based on the responses, we've put together a comprehensive snapshot of mobile data use and satisfaction.

We found, for instance, that despite all the hype around smartwatches and other wearables, less than a quarter of respondents are considering buying one in the coming year. And although nearly half of respondents say they're more concerned about mobile data privacy than they were in 2013, more than half haven't changed their mobile habits because of those concerns.

There's a lot more we've found out, some of it quite surprising. Read on for all that, and to find out which mobile data provider has moved into first place for customer satisfaction in our survey.

Editor's note: For the sake of readability, in the story text below we've combined the "very satisfied" and "satisfied" responses into a single "satisfied" percentage, and we've likewise combined the "dissatisfied" and "very dissatisfied" responses into a single "dissatisfied" percentage. The accompanying charts show the full percentage breakdowns.

What you think about your mobile data service

We found that although people are generally satisfied with their service providers and the providers' data networks, they're a bit less satisfied than they were in 2013. For example, 62% of the 2014 respondents are satisfied with the availability of their data connection, down from 67% satisfied the previous year. Almost everywhere you look in the survey, you find a similar drop. Only 48% of people say they are satisfied with their service's tech support, compared to a 58% satisfaction rate in 2013. (See the complete 2013 results.)

Let's take a closer look at each category.

Data connection availability and reliability

For many people, a smartphone is more a mobile computer than it is a portable telephone, and so the availability and reliability of a data connection is one of the most important features offered by a wireless carrier. So we asked how satisfied people are with their data network coverage and availability.

Respondents are reasonably satisfied with the availability of their data connection (is the connection there when and where they want it?), with 62% satisfied and 20% dissatisfied. (The remaining 18% say they are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.) Overall, people are slightly less satisfied with the availability of their data connection than they were when we last surveyed them in 2013, when 67% were satisfied and 17% dissatisfied.

The satisfaction numbers vary dramatically by carrier, with 69% of Verizon customers in our survey being satisfied, closely followed by AT&T's 67%. Respondents who use Sprint are the unhappiest, with only 39% satisfied and 46% dissatisfied; in fact, in this survey Sprint is the only carrier whose customers are more dissatisfied than satisfied with the availability of their data connection. T-Mobile, meanwhile, had 54% of its customers satisfied with the availability of its data network. Similarly, in 2013 Verizon was on top and Sprint at the bottom when it came to the availability of a data connection.

As for the reliability of a data connection once it's made (are there dropped connections or streaming interruptions?), respondents are slightly less satisfied than with its availability, with 56% being satisfied and 20% dissatisfied. These numbers are down slightly from 2013, when 61% reported themselves as being satisfied and 18% unsatisfied.

Again, the results differ according to carrier, with Verizon having the highest satisfaction rate at 59%. That's closely followed by T-Mobile with a 58% satisfaction rate -- a dramatic improvement over its 44% satisfaction rate in 2013. AT&T is just behind with a 57% satisfaction rate, and Sprint brings up the rear with a 45% satisfaction (and 39% dissatisfaction) rate. In 2013, Verizon was rated tops, and T-Mobile and Sprint rated the worst.

Network speed

Merely having an available and reliable connection isn't good enough -- you also want a connection that's fast. And people are not as satisfied with the download and upload speeds of their service as they are with its availability and reliability.

Some 59% of respondents are satisfied and 18% dissatisfied with their download speed. That's below 2013's 66% satisfaction and 16% dissatisfaction rates.

T-Mobile is on top in the current survey with a 65% satisfaction rate, followed by AT&T at 62% and Verizon at 59%. Sprint is far behind with only a 43% satisfaction rate, barely beating out its 39% dissatisfaction rate. Although all four carriers' download speed satisfaction ratings dropped somewhat year over year, the most notable drop is for Verizon, which went from first place and a 71% satisfaction rating to third place with just 59%.

When it comes to upload speeds, a bare majority, 52%, say they are satisfied. T-Mobile is again tops here with a 61% satisfaction rate, followed by AT&T with 56% and Verizon with 52%. Once again Sprint is the loser with only a 39% satisfaction rate, not much above its 32% dissatisfaction rate. Verizon and T-Mobile swapped places from year to year, with Verizon dropping from first to third and T-Mobile jumping from third to first.

Value and phone selection

Are people pleased overall with the value they get from their mobile service providers? Not particularly. Only half of respondents say they're satisfied with their service's performance relative to its cost -- in other words, its value -- while 30% say they're dissatisfied. In 2013, the percentages for both satisfied and dissatisfied ratings were somewhat higher: 52% said they were satisfied and 25% dissatisfied.

T-Mobile customers are happy outliers: A whopping 70% say they are satisfied and only 12% dissatisfied with the value of their service. Forty-eight percent of AT&T customers and 43% of Sprint customers say they are satisfied. Verizon is the worst of the bunch: 39% of people say they are satisfied, while 37% say they are dissatisfied.

When it comes to phone selection, though, people are quite content. Phone availability gets the highest ratings in the entire survey: 76% of people are satisfied with it, compared to only 8% who are dissatisfied. That's down slightly from last year, when 81% of people said they were satisfied, and about 7% were dissatisfied.

Sprint comes out on top for phone selection with an 81% satisfaction rate, followed by AT&T with 78%, Verizon at 76%, and T-Mobile at 75%.

Tech support and customer service

Here's the least surprising fact you'll find in our survey: You're not happy with your provider's technical support. Only 48% of respondents report themselves as satisfied, and 15% say they're dissatisfied. This significantly worse than in 2013, when 58% of people said they were satisfied and only 9% were dissatisfied.

T-Mobile is on top for the second year in a row, although it gets only a 54% satisfied rate among respondents in the current survey, down from 68% in 2013. The other three providers don't even reach a majority of satisfied customers among our respondents: Sprint and Verizon each have 49%, and AT&T has just 43% satisfied.

People are a bit more pleased with customer service, with 56% satisfied and 15% dissatisfied. T-Mobile is again a winner here, with 66% satisfied and 10% dissatisfied. The rest of the providers are bunched together with satisfaction rates between 52% and 55%.

Will you switch?

Given respondents' general satisfaction with their carrier in all these areas, we weren't surprised to find that only 39% say they're considering switching to another provider. The most common reason given for considering a change is price, followed by coverage/reliability, plan options and customer service.

But once again the results vary considerably among different providers' customers: While just 28% of respondents who use T-Mobile are considering switching, more than half (51%) of Sprint customers in our survey say they're considering it. The other carriers fall in between, with 33% of respondents who use AT&T considering switching and 44% of respondents who use Verizon considering it. Price is the No. 1 reason named by Verizon and AT&T users in our survey considering a switch, while respondents who use Sprint and T-Mobile cite coverage/reliability as the primary reason.

Privacy and provider trustworthiness

The past few years have seen a flood of revelations about privacy invasions by government agencies, often with the cooperation of private companies. So we were surprised that people generally feel comfortable with the way in which carriers protect their private data.

Sixty-three percent of respondents say their carriers are trustworthy when it comes to protecting their privacy, compared to 22% who believe they are untrustworthy. T-Mobile's customers rate that carrier the highest, with 76% saying it is trustworthy and only 14% rating it as untrustworthy. There was no real difference among the customers of other carriers, which each had either 61% or 62% trustworthiness ratings.

Overall, 48% of respondents say they are more worried about the privacy of their mobile data than they were the previous year, 46% say their privacy fears haven't changed and 6% say they worry less. Among respondents' top privacy concerns are government snooping, ever-more sophisticated hackers and an increase in large data breaches.

Slightly more than half of respondents (53%) say they haven't changed the way they use mobile apps or mobile data in the past year due to privacy concerns, while the remaining 47% say they have changed their data behavior because of privacy fears.

Those who have made changes cite a variety of safety measures taken, including using stronger passcodes or two-factor authentication, using a VPN, installing fewer apps, limiting apps' permissions (such as accessing location data), encrypting data, and simply not using a phone for conducting transactions such as banking, shopping or accessing medical data.

Wearable devices

With all the publicity surrounding smart watches and other wearable mobile devices, we asked people whether they plan to buy a wearable smart device in the coming year. We received a resounding "No": 77% say they aren't going to buy a wearable smart device and just 23% say they plan to.

Of those who do plan to buy such a device, 93% say they will buy smartwatches, 36% plan to buy fitness trackers, 18% plan to buy smart glasses and 3% plan to buy other smart devices, mainly heart rate monitors.

Your mobile data use

How are you using your mobile data? Are you connected to a 3G or 4G network? What types of apps do you use most? We asked those questions and more, and found interesting results (as well as some changes) from 2013.

One main finding is that 2014 seems to be the year that 4G networks finally took hold. Some 55% of respondents say they connect solely via some kind of 4G network, while only 14% report connecting solely on 3G. And that understates how many people have access to 4G networks, because 27% of people say they connect via either 3G or 4G depending on their location. All this is a dramatic shift from the previous year, when 39% said they connected via 4G, 32% via 3G, and 26% on either 3G or 4G depending on their location.

T-Mobile customers have the highest 4G use among respondents, with 77% saying they connect via 4G and 16% saying either 3G or 4G depending on their location.

People seem to be quite cognizant about not spending too much time on their data connections, possibly because most are on tiered data plans rather than unlimited plans. Only 30% say they use their data connection for more than an hour a day -- 21% use it for between one and three hours, and 9% use it for more than three hours. (Note that these numbers don't include the amount of time they use Wi-Fi connections.) Thirty-one percent of people use their data connection for between 20 minutes and an hour per day, 22% use it for between 10 to 20 minutes, and 17% use it for less than 10 minutes. All these numbers are generally in keeping with what we found in 2013.

The numbers vary quite a bit by carrier, with 43% of Sprint customers being among those respondents who use a data connection for more than an hour each day (likely due to the preponderance of unlimited plans among Sprint customers) and only 28% of Verizon customers using it for more than an hour.

Some 42% of respondents report that they're using their phones more for business than the previous year, for activities such as checking work email, using productivity apps and accessing data in the cloud. Only 12% say they're using their phones for work less. The remainder say business use has been unchanged. There is little difference in these numbers among people who use different carriers.

To what use do people put their data connections? Four activities stand out: Emailing is at the top of the list, with 78% of respondents using their connection for that. Web browsing is next with 73%, followed by GPS use with 67%, and getting local data (weather, business hours/ratings, transit info, etc.) with 60%. No other use cracks the 30% barrier, although social networking comes close with 29%. After that, banking, streaming media and using cloud storage all come in with 21%.

Plans, contracts and costs

For the second year running, family plans are far more popular with our readers than any other type: 49% of survey respondents are on family plans and 32% are on individual plans, with the remainder nearly evenly split between business plans (10%) and data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets (9%). These numbers are almost identical to 2013's, which had 50% on family plans, 27% on individual plans, 12% on business plans and 11% on data-sharing plans.

Although long-term contracts are still the most popular, with 65% of respondents being on those contracts, 28% on month-to-month plans and 7% using prepaid services, that's a considerable change from the previous year, with long-term contracts becoming much less popular and month-to-month plans becoming much more popular. In 2013, 84% of respondents were on long-term contracts, 12% were month to month and 4% were on prepaid plans.

As if you didn't know, unlimited data plans are on the way out. Some 42% of respondents are on unlimited plans and 50% on tiered plans. (The rest are not sure what kind of plan they're on.) That's a big turnaround from 2013, when 56% of respondents were on unlimited plans, 40% were on tiered plans and 4% didn't know.

There's a dramatic difference among providers here, and it shows that Sprint's attempt to differentiate itself with unlimited plans continues to pay off, with 83% of its customers among our survey respondents saying they are on unlimited data plans. At the other end of the spectrum, only 26% of respondents who are Verizon customers say they're on unlimited plans. At 35% and 59%, respectively, AT&T and T-Mobile fall in between.

The vast majority of you report that you have voice-and-data bundles rather than data-only plans, with 80% having the bundles and 20% with data service only. In the data-only group, 45% of respondents say they pay $40 or less for service each month, 21% pay $41 to $60, 6% pay $61 to $80, 9% pay $81 to $100, and 14% pay $101 or more. Five percent of those responding don't know how much they pay.

Those numbers vary dramatically according to carrier. Some 87% of T-Mobile customers who took our survey pay $40 or less, for example, while only 31% of Verizon customers say they pay $40 or less.

Those with bundled voice and data have higher monthly bills, as you might expect. Seven percent pay $40 or less per month, 16% pay between $41 and $60, 12% pay between $61 and $80, 12% pay between $81 and $100, 21% pay between $101 and $150, 16% pay between $151 and $200, and 12% pay more than $200. Five percent aren't sure how much they pay.

T-Mobile customers again have the lowest bills, with 52% paying up to $80. And again Verizon customers get hit the hardest, with only 20% paying $80 or less. That said, costs alone don't tell the whole story; it could be that many T-Mobile customers are paying for plans with a lower monthly data allowance than many Verizon customers.

Why you chose your mobile provider

We wanted to know why people chose their carriers: price, coverage, plan options, the availability of a specific phone, or if a person's employer chose the carrier. We asked survey respondents to rank how important each factor was, with 1 being the most important and 7 being the least important.

Network coverage was by far the most important factor, with 78% of respondents ranking it either a No. 1 or No. 2. Next was price, with 57% ranking it a 1 or 2.

Inertia also plays a role in which provider people use: 38% gave a 1 or 2 ranking to saying they stay with their existing carrier simply because they are longtime customers. Specific plan options played a slightly lesser role, with 34% of respondents giving that a ranking of 1 or 2. Only 21% say the availability of a specific phone was important in choosing a carrier, 19% say they stay with their existing carrier because they're happy with it or have no reason to switch, and 19% report that their employer selected the carrier.

We also asked people to write in other factors that influenced their decision. Common responses include customer service, tech support, other family members using the same provider, and the option to eschew a long-term contract.

The rankings: Best and worst mobile data providers

Which are the best and which are the worst providers according to our survey takers? We crunched the numbers and came up with weighted averages on a scale of 1 to 5. (See "How the survey was conducted and graded" for details.)

T-Mobile was the clear winner in our 2014 survey. With ratings at the top of six of the eight individual categories, it came in first with a total weighted rating of 3.70 out of 5. At 3.58 overall, AT&T placed second. Next came Verizon with a 3.49, followed by Sprint with a lowly 3.30 rating.

This is a significant change from 2013, when Verizon ruled the roost and T-Mobile was stuck in third place. AT&T retained its No. 2 spot from the previous year, and for the second year in a row Sprint was the clear loser, well behind the other major three carriers.

How did T-Mobile become the service provider with the most satisfied customers among our readers? For a start, by dominating the performance relative to cost rating -- in other words, bang for the buck -- where it rated a 3.9. Second-place AT&T was well behind at 3.2, and Verizon and Sprint both scored just 3.0. This is the second year in a row that T-Mobile's flexible pricing strategies, including its no-contract, no-phone-subsidy plans, appear to have paid big dividends in the value category.

In the current survey results, T-Mobile also led the satisfaction ratings for average upload speeds (3.7) and average download speeds (3.8), and saw incremental gains in its network availability (3.4) and reliability (3.5) ratings, perhaps due to its rapid LTE network expansion. These are all strong areas for Verizon as well; it came in first with a 3.8 for availability of connection and 3.6 for reliability of connection. In 2013, however, Verizon ran the table and ranked first in each of these four categories, with 3.8s and 3.9s across the board. (Note that these numbers represent customers' satisfaction rates in these areas, not actual network speed or reliability.)

T-Mobile was also ahead of the competition in two of the "softer" categories -- technical support and customer service/billing. It scored a 3.6 in technical support, just ahead of Sprint's and Verizon's 3.5s and AT&T's 3.4. And T-Mobile had a 3.8 for customer service/billing, compared to 3.6 for Sprint and 3.5 for AT&T and Verizon.

As for phone selection, that was the sole category that Sprint won, with a 4.2 rating, nosing out AT&T at 4.1, and T-Mobile and Verizon at 4.

Note: If you'd like to see the raw figures we used to calculate these ratings, see our Final Results chart (PDF).

Bottom line

Clearly, 2014 was a very good year for T-Mobile. By mid-year, the company had finally begun to show a profit to the tune of $391 million as reported in July and was signing up customers in record numbers. Preliminary results for the fourth quarter showed it with 55 million customers, stealing subscribers from its rivals and coming within striking distance of No. 3 Sprint, although still well behind both No. 1 Verizon and No. 2 AT&T.

T-Mobile did that in part by eliminating monthly contracts and international data roaming charges. And as our survey results reflect, it ran the table when it comes to customer satisfaction, while also doing well in network access and performance.

Don't expect Verizon and AT&T to sit idle, though. They will likely play up their broader LTE network reach in the coming year as a way to stave off T-Mobile's charge, and they may well adopt some of the upstart provider's strategies. AT&T, for instance, has just announced monthly data rollovers for many of its subscribers, three weeks after T-Mobile announced a similar plan.

As for Sprint, it was the big loser for the second year running in our customer satisfaction survey, and its real-world numbers reflect that, with a loss of 1.8 million postpaid subscribers in the first three quarters of 2014. The company did, however, gain back about 30,000 postpaid subscribers in the fourth quarter by running a variety of promotions such as cutting prices and increasing data caps.

But while the price and promotion war was good for consumers' wallets in 2014, there's some concern among industry analysts that lower profits might prompt wireless providers to cut back on key infrastructure rollouts and technology improvements, which could negatively affect subscribers a couple years down the road.

What to expect in 2015? Stay tuned: We'll be conducting another survey later this year and telling you the results.

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