What's most important about your smartphone? Something you don't actually see — the network you use to connect to the Internet, find and use apps, get information and more. So for the third year in a row we set out to discover which mobile service provider gives you the most comprehensive and reliable data network coverage, the fastest upload and download speeds, and the most bang for the buck.
To do it, we checked with those who know the most about using the networks — you and other Computerworld readers. We conducted a 12-week-long online survey in the summer of 2015 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, customer service/billing, and more.
Survey-takers had five choices for each category: very satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, dissatisfied and very dissatisfied. We crunched the numbers from our 870 respondents and came up with the winners and the losers.
The vast majority of our survey respondents — 90% — use one of the four most popular U.S. cellular service carriers: 36% use Verizon Wireless, 30% use AT&T, 15% use T-Mobile and 9% use Sprint. While those are the only providers we rated in this story, we used 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 lot of other questions as well, such as what activities people use mobile data networks for, how much they pay for their service, if they've unlocked their phones, whether they plan to buy a wearable device, why they chose their mobile provider, if they believe their carrier protects their private data, and more. Using that information, we've put together a comprehensive snapshot of mobile data use and satisfaction.
We found, for instance, that even though new phone-unlocking rules generated lots of headlines in 2015, very few respondents actually unlocked their phones. And even though the Apple Watch was released in 2015 with the usual Apple hype and hoopla, only 20% of respondents are considering buying a wearable in the coming year. (Of those planning to buy, though, nearly half said an Apple Watch would be their choice.)
We found out lots more, with plenty of surprises along the way. Read on for those details — or click here to skip ahead and see which is the best mobile data provider, which the worst, and how the others fared.
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.
How you rate your mobile data service
Although everyone likes to complain about service providers and data networks, we found that on a whole, respondents are happier with them than they were in our 2014 survey. For example, 70% of 2015 respondents are satisfied with the availability of their data connection, up from 62% satisfied the previous year. For almost every question we asked, people are more satisfied than they were a year earlier — even when it comes to everyone's worst bugaboo, tech support, where 54% of the 2015 respondents are satisfied, versus 48% in 2014.
Let's take a closer look at each category.
Data connection availability and reliability
A smartphone is, above all, a handheld, Internet-capable computer, and so the availability and reliability of a data connection may well be the most important feature offered by a wireless carrier. So we asked how satisfied people are with their data network coverage and availability.
Overall, respondents are quite satisfied with the availability of their data connection (is the connection there when and where they want it?), with 70% satisfied and only 14% dissatisfied. The remaining 16% say they are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. People are more satisfied with the availability of their data connection than they were when we surveyed them in 2014, when 62% were satisfied and 20% dissatisfied.
Drill down into the breakdown by carrier, though, and you see that the high satisfaction ratings are largely driven by a single carrier, Verizon, which has astonishingly high ratings — 81% satisfied and only 9% dissatisfied. AT&T was a distant second with 66% satisfied, followed by T-Mobile with 59% satisfied. Bringing up the rear was Sprint, whose customers are not a happy bunch, with 48% satisfied and 34% dissatisfied with the availability of their connection.
People are not quite as happy with the reliability of the data connection once it's made (are there dropped connections or streaming interruptions?), with 65% satisfied and 14% dissatisfied overall. Still, the numbers are up from a year earlier, when 56% reported themselves as being satisfied and 20% dissatisfied.
Once again, Verizon is the big winner, with 75% satisfied, followed by T-Mobile with 63% satisfied, then AT&T with 60% satisfied. Sprint was again the big loser, with 46% satisfied and 33% dissatisfied.
Data connections aren't just about availability and reliability — they're about how fast data is uploaded and downloaded. People are about as satisfied with the download speeds of their service as they are with its availability and reliability, although they don't rate their upload speeds as highly.
Some 71% of survey respondents say they are satisfied with their download speed, and about 10% dissatisfied. That's well above 2014's 59% satisfied and 18% dissatisfied.
T-Mobile is the big winner in this category, with 83% satisfied and just 5% dissatisfied, followed by Verizon with 75% satisfied, AT&T with 65% satisfied, and Sprint with 57% satisfied. All four carriers' download speed satisfaction ratings are up from the previous year.
People are not quite as pleased with their upload speeds: 62% say they are satisfied and 9% dissatisfied. That's better than in 2014, when only 52% were satisfied and 16% dissatisfied.
T-Mobile customers are the happiest with upload speeds, with 77% satisfied and a mere 4% dissatisfied, followed by Verizon with 67% satisfied. AT&T has only a 53% satisfaction rating, and Sprint was yet again the loser, with 51% of its customers satisfied.
Value and phone selection
People are slightly more pleased this year with the overall value they get from their mobile service provider — that is, their service's performance relative to its cost — than they were in 2014, but the numbers still aren't stellar. Fifty-five percent are satisfied, while 24% are dissatisfied, compared to 50% satisfied and 30% dissatisfied a year earlier.
Among the Big Four carriers, T-Mobile is clearly the value leader. The company has a 77% satisfaction rating for value from its customers. Next in line is Sprint with a 56% satisfaction rating, followed by Verizon with 48% satisfied and AT&T with 42% satisfied. Every carrier had higher 2015 ratings in this category than in 2014.
The phone selection category gets the highest satisfaction ratings in the entire survey. Seventy-eight percent of respondents are satisfied with the selection of phones available from their carrier, and only 6% dissatisfied. That's right in line with 2014, when 76% of people were satisfied and 8% dissatisfied.
There's no real difference in satisfaction ratings for phone selection among the major carriers: Sprint and T-Mobile are at 81% satisfied, followed by AT&T at 80% and Verizon at 79%.
Tech support and customer service
Here's a surprise: A majority of people are satisfied with their carrier's technical support this year — 54% are satisfied and only 12% dissatisfied. That's a bump up from 2014, when 48% of respondents reported themselves as satisfied and 15% dissatisfied.
T-Mobile wins big in this category: An impressive 70% of its customers who took our survey report themselves as satisfied. It's the third year in a row T-Mobile has come out on top and represents a big leap from last year, when 54% of its customers were satisfied with the carrier's tech support. Verizon has a 52% satisfaction rate, followed by Sprint with 51% satisfied and finally AT&T with 49% satisfied.
People are generally satisfied with their carrier's customer service and billing, with 62% satisfied and 12% dissatisfied, up slightly from 56% satisfied and 15% dissatisfied a year earlier.
T-Mobile is well ahead of the pack again, with 76% of its customers satisfied. That's followed by Sprint with 62% satisfied, Verizon with 57% satisfied and AT&T with 56% satisfied.
Switching providers? Not so much
Considering that respondents are generally satisfied with their carriers in every area we surveyed, it's no surprise that only 14% have switched carriers in the past year. Of that small group, two thirds switched once, 20% switched twice and just 14% switched more than twice. Why did they switch? Price (57%), coverage and reliability (44%) and plan options (39%) were the most frequently cited factors.
And just 28% of respondents say they are considering switching to another provider, an even lower number than last year's 39%. The same three reasons are important to this group: 74% cited the cost of their plan as a reason for possibly switching, followed by coverage and reliability at 44% and plan options at 37%.
These responses vary by carrier: A whopping 85% of Verizon customers and 75% of AT&T customers who are considering switching point to price, while T-Mobile and Sprint customers overwhelmingly cite coverage and reliability as reasons they might switch carriers.
Baby steps toward unlocked phones
In February 2015, regulations went into effect that require carriers to allow customers to unlock their phones if they want to switch carriers (or for any other reason, for that matter). At the same time, more consumers are opting to buy unsubsidized, unlocked phones that aren't tied to a particular carrier's contract. So we wanted to find out whether people have begun to unlock their phones or buy unlocked phones.
The answer: Largely they haven't. Only 15% of respondents report they unlocked their phone or bought an unlocked phone in the past year. T-Mobile customers are leading the charge with 34% reporting unlocking a phone or buying an unlocked phone, well above AT&T with 12%, Verizon with 8% and Sprint with 6%. That's not too surprising, since T-Mobile has been offering no-contract services for a couple years now, while the other carriers have only recently offered that model.
Privacy and provider trustworthiness
During the last several years there have been nonstop revelations about government agencies invading people's privacy, sometimes with the help of private companies. But as was the case in our 2014 survey, people are for the most part comfortable with the way in which their carriers handle their private data.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents rate their carriers as trustworthy when it comes to protecting their data, compared to 16% who believe they are untrustworthy and 15% who say they have no opinion. That's a slight uptick in trustworthiness from the previous year, when 63% of respondents rated their carriers as trustworthy and 22% considered them untrustworthy.
T-Mobile received the highest ratings, with 77% of customers who took our survey rating it trustworthy and 5% untrustworthy. (T-Mobile was the leader in 2014 as well, with 76% of its customers rating it as trustworthy.) There is little difference among the other major carriers, which have trustworthiness ratings ranging from 66% to 69%.
Despite those high ratings, half of respondents are more worried now about the privacy of their mobile data than they were a year earlier, 5% are less worried and 45% report the same level of concern.
Respondents cite invasive apps, high-profile data breaches in the news and ever-more sophisticated hackers as reasons to be concerned. However, only 3% of respondents say their phone has ever been compromised or hacked.
Less than half of respondents (43%) say they have changed the way they use mobile apps or mobile data in the past year due to privacy concerns, while the remaining 57% say they haven't changed their data behavior because of privacy fears. Those who have made changes cite a variety of safety measures taken, including avoiding untrusted apps and Web sites (80%); using fingerprint unlock, stronger passcodes or two-factor authentication (67%); restricting app permissions including access to location (66%); avoiding public Wi-Fi (61%); and disabling their phone's location services when not in use (53%).
Wearable devices get passed over
Despite the hype around smartwatches and other wearable computing devices in 2015, including the release of the Apple Watch, people simply aren't interested in buying. Only 10% of respondents report having bought a wearable smart device in the past year.
Of those who did buy one, 50% bought a fitness tracker, 25% bought an Apple Watch, 23% bought an Android Wear watch, 21% bought another type of smartwatch and a mere 2% bought smartglasses.
When we asked if respondents were considering buying a wearable smart device in the coming year, they answered like they did the year before: They're not interested. Eighty percent say they aren't going to buy one, compared to 77% the previous year.
Of those who say they are considering buying a wearable, 49% say they're interested in an Apple Watch, 38% an Android Wear watch, 17% another smartwatch, 44% a fitness tracker and 7% smartglasses.