Consumer Reports polled some 63,000 U.S. wireless subscribers for their thoughts on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless. The pollees gave Verizon top marks for voice quality and customer service. Sprint's network and customer support earned it second-place honors, while T-Mobile rated third and AT&T ranked dead last for the third year in a row.
What didn't consumers like about AT&T? Everything but its LTE 4G network, which they gave top marks. They rated the carrier's call quality, value and customer service as the worst of the four major network operators.
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It's quite incredible that AT&T's 4G LTE network outmatched Verizon's, given the footprint offered by each. AT&T's network covers about 150 million Americans across 103 markets. Verizon's network covers more than 300 million Americans across more than 400 markets. Verizon's 4G network is available to significantly more people around the country. So why did it fall behind AT&T's? Speed and performance of the network.
I use AT&T and Verizon's 4G LTE networks every day, and Consumer Reports' results in this metric mirror my own experience with these 4G networks. AT&T's LTE 4G network has out-performed Verizon's in every major city to which I've traveled in the last year, including New York, San Francisco, San Diego, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.). I've found AT&T's LTE 4G network to be dramatically faster and much more reliable than Verizon's. (Verizon's LTE network has had several significant outages in the last year.)
According to Consumer Reports, 4G customers are generally happier than 3G customers, even though they pay more for their faster service.
The lack of available 4G hurt Sprint this year. It ranked second to Verizon, just as it did last year, but fell further behind in Consumer Reports' rating system in part because Sprint's customers don't have the same access to 4G that AT&T's and Verizon's customers have.
Sprint's LTE market can be described as nascent. It is available in 43 markets, but many of them are smaller cities and towns and not the country's largest metropolises.
Nascent is better than non-existent, which is the best term for T-Mobile USA's 4G network. It operates a quick HSPA+ data network, but it won't start rolling out LTE 4G until well into 2013.