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Can You Grade Me Now?

You know how wireless carriers love to tout the quality of their calling services in TV commercials, citing expert reports?

Consumer Reports, the magazine put out by Consumers Union, released its annual cell-phone service report yesterday, and there wasn't much for some carriers to crow about.

Sprint and Cingular fared poorly in most of the 20 cities where 43,000 people were surveyed. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile did better, except in cities where regional carrier Alltel got the top spot.

But before any carrier gets too excited over the results, let's note that overall the carriers scored 66 percent in customer satisfaction. It's been a while since I've gotten an actual grade, but if I'm remembering correctly, 66 percent lands you in C or D territory--- not exactly honor-roll material. Consumer Reports phrased it another way: "Cell service remains one of the lowest rated services that Consumer Reports tracks....[It is] among the ranks of cable TV and computer tech support."

Of the people who switched phone services in the last three years, 54 percent did so to flee poor service. When you consider all the discounts and marketing that cell phone companies do to get your attention, losing customers at a high rate is a huge cost for wireless companies.

In a separate survey, Consumer Reports noted that calling 9-1-1 isn't a sure thing from any type of phone: 5 percent of callers never successfully connected or communicated with 911 from their land line, compared to 12 percent who were using Internet phones and 16 percent placing the call from cell phones. (In the survey, 29 percent of cell-phone buyers said they bought the phone for emergencies.)

By Yuki Noguchi  |  December 5, 2006; 2:19 PM ET  | Category:  Yuki Noguchi
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I don't understand why the results are so low considering you have a device (I use a BlackBerry) in your hand that does practically everything. I can't live without my BlackBerry or Cingular service and rarely drop calls.... I'm a consultant who drives around and uses about 3,000 minutes per month.

Posted by: Bradley | December 6, 2006 8:31 PM

The phone companies, remind me of the airlines. Both de regulated, both have gone down hill ever since.

I can buy a first class seat, and hide in American Admirals club. No amount of money, gets we North Americans, cell service anything like that of europe.

Posted by: Dan | December 7, 2006 6:05 AM

I used to work for Sprint and I am here to tell you you are lucky the phones work AT ALL. It was hands down the most dysfunctional corporation I have ever seen with the exception of Bush-Cheney-PNAC Corp. When I quit, I realized that generally a cell phone is more nuisance than helpful. If you can not leave me a message and wait for me to get back to you, it was not that important. Buy a disposable cell if you are traveling in case you need to call out in an emergency, but the rest is just marketers convincing you to buy products and services that NO ONE really needs. And you should be able to pull over driver's talking on their cell phones in traffic and commit an anatomical trick on said driver with said phone. You should get a medal for it.

Posted by: Todd | December 7, 2006 8:45 AM

Competition was supposed to make these services better - instead the lions share of the budget is spent on wooing new customers, and nothing on keeping current ones. I called customer service and pointed out that one of their competitors was offering a better phone and cheaper plan, and asked if they could match it. The rep said "our service is better," which makes me want to cry, because their service is awful.

Posted by: Becky | December 7, 2006 11:16 AM

Wireless satisfaction is a based on a triangle of 3 things: 1)network quality 2)phone quality and 3)rates. The companies make the mistake of looking at each one as a selling point if they're strong in that area. Consumers look at each one as a serious problem if their expecations aren't met. All of the companies are lacking in 1, sometimes 2, of these areas so poor ratings aren't surprising.

Posted by: booyah | December 7, 2006 12:34 PM

It's hard to say that deregulation has hurt consumers. Look at prices in both airlines and cell phones. They've gone way down since deregulation. With airlines, the declines in service have been a result of customers' relentless pursuit of low prices. Airlines have repeatedly tried offering better service (e.g., more legroom) for higher fares, but the market rejects them.

With cell phones, it's basically the same thing--people are enticed by the buckets of free minutes, or large minutes, and the free new phones. They don't consider the quality of service in making those decisions, but then are upset when the quality isn't there. Why should the cell cos. do something different? If they lose customers because someone else offers more minutes, wouldn't you offer more minutes too?

Please note that I'm not trying to defend the cell cos.--I'm not, and think their service is often quite obnoxious. But do you get better service from your local monopoly, verizon landline? I don't think so. Deregulation is not the problem--consumer priorities are.

Posted by: ah | December 7, 2006 2:10 PM

"ah" gets it right. The American Consumer is getting the best wireless service that can be provided for the rates the average customer is willing to pay. Keep in mind that every customer has a different expectation on where the service needs to work. Some customers don't mind an occasional dropped call but get frustrated when they can't complete a free call at 9PM. Not to say that any blocked call at anytime should be tolerated but there are plenty of factors that are out of the wireless company's control that affect their services at certain time. Wireless service has never been regulated - even when offered by a subsidiary of a regulated telecommunications company. That has enabled plenty of competition and that is generally good although it is hard for six or seven carriers to compete in the market and generate enough revenue to build a very robust network that meets more than 66% favor (and be in business tomorrow). I would shudder to consider what satisfaction ratings would do in a regulated environment. Perhaps coverage would improve because the carriers would likely get more leeway to construct their sites in places where people want them but zoning doesn't permit?

Posted by: dw | December 7, 2006 3:18 PM

Consumers across the country are calling on the cell phone companies to end early termination fees, extra charges, unrealistic coverage maps, and dropped calls.

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has a fast and easy way to contact the cell phone companies.

Posted by: Morgan | December 11, 2006 9:05 AM

Posted by: Morgan | December 11, 2006 9:06 AM

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