The votes are in: Which mobile data provider is best?
That thing you carry in your pocket may be called a smartphone, but its main purpose isn’t to talk to other people — it’s a tiny computer you use to connect to the internet, get information and find and use apps. So, for the fourth year in a row we’ve gone on a mission to find out 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 turned to the experts — you and other Computerworld readers. We conducted an 8-week-long online survey this summer asking smartphone users to rate providers in multiple 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 485 U.S. respondents and came up with the winners and the losers.
The vast majority of our survey respondents — 86% — use one of the four most popular U.S. cellular service carriers: 37% use Verizon Wireless, 27% use AT&T, 13% use T-Mobile and 8% use Sprint. Those are the only providers we rated in this story, but 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 use their provider’s free video-streaming service, why they chose their mobile provider, if they believe their carrier protects their private data, and more. Armed with that information, we've put together a comprehensive snapshot of mobile data use and satisfaction.
We found, for instance, that even though the world is moving to no-contract plans and it’s easier than ever to move between carriers, few people bother to switch. In addition, for the second year in a row, despite phone-unlocking rules, few people actually unlocked their phones.
We found plenty of surprises as well. So, read on for more — 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 that follows 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. To see the full percentage breakdowns, hover over the bars in the "Mobile data services: Overall user satisfaction" chart below.
How you rate your mobile data service
No one likes to publicly tout how much they love their service provider and its data network, but we found that overall people are extremely satisfied with them. For example, 79% of 2016 respondents are satisfied with the availability of their data connection, up from 70% in 2015 and 62% in 2014. That’s a sign that providers are responding to consumer demand, rather than taking their customers for granted, at least when it comes to data networks.
Let's take a closer look at each category.
Data connection availability and reliability
Smartphones are used more for data than they are for phone calls, and so data network coverage and availability could be the most important feature offered by a wireless carrier. So, we asked people how satisfied they are with their network coverage.
They’re a happy lot. Overall, respondents are extremely satisfied with the availability of their data connection (is the connection there when and where they want it?), with 79% satisfied and only 7% dissatisfied. People are more satisfied with the availability of their data connection than they were when we surveyed them in 2015, when 70% were satisfied and 14% were dissatisfied. And they’re much happier than they were in 2014, when 62% were satisfied and 20% were dissatisfied. Just like last year, Verizon has extremely high satisfaction ratings here, a whopping 87%, up from 81% last year. T-Mobile comes in second, with a 78% rating, well up from its 59% a year ago. AT&T is in third this year with 73% (up from 66% last year), and Sprint comes in fourth, with 69%. But that 69% is a victory of sorts for Sprint, because a year ago its customers were not a happy bunch, with only 48% satisfied and 34% dissatisfied with the availability of their connection.
People are nearly as happy with the reliability of the data connection once it's made (are there dropped connections or streaming interruptions?), with 75% satisfied and 9% dissatisfied. That’s a big jump over 2015 when 65% were satisfied and 14% dissatisfied, and in 2014, when 56% reported themselves as being satisfied and 20% dissatisfied.
As with last year, Verizon is the 2016 winner, with 82% satisfied, followed by T-Mobile with 75% satisfied, Sprint with 72% satisfied, and then AT&T with 67% satisfied. Once again, Sprint may be the happiest of all this year, because its numbers are up dramatically compared to a year ago, when only 46% were satisfied and 33% dissatisfied.
Making and keeping a connection is one thing, but the actual speed of the connection is another entirely. So, we asked how satisfied people are with how fast their data is uploaded and downloaded. Turns out they are not as pleased with their network speed as they are with the availability and reliability of their connections. In fact, there’s little change from last year. This year, 71% of survey respondents say they are satisfied with their download speed and 10% dissatisfied, essentially unchanged from a year ago.
Verizon is the winner in this category as well, with 77% satisfied, followed by T-Mobile with 73% satisfied, Sprint with 69% satisfied, and AT&T with 65% satisfied. T-Mobile won’t be happy with these numbers: Last year it was the leader with 83% of its customers satisfied with download speeds.
As with a year ago, people aren’t as pleased with their upload speeds as with downloads. Sixty-five percent are satisfied and 9% dissatisfied, little changed from last year, when 62% were satisfied and 9% dissatisfied.
T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon are essentially tied in this category, with T-Mobile getting a 70% satisfaction rate and Sprint and Verizon each getting 69%. AT&T lags well behind, with only 58% of customers satisfied with upload speeds. That’s barely up from 53% a year ago. As for Sprint, it once again will be happy with its numbers this year, because a year ago, a mere 51% of its customers were satisfied with upload speeds.
Value and phone selection
People aren’t much happier with the overall value they get from their mobile service provider — that is, their service's performance relative to its cost — than they were last year. Fifty-eight percent are satisfied, and 19% are dissatisfied. A year ago, 55% were satisfied and 24% dissatisfied.
As with a year ago, T-Mobile is clearly the value leader. It has a 71% satisfaction rating value. (Last year it had a 77% rating.) Next is Sprint with 64%, Verizon with 50% and AT&T with 47%.
As for the phone selection category, ratings are slightly down from last year. This year 73% reported themselves as being satisfied with the selection of phones available from their carrier and 7% dissatisfied. A year ago, 78% were satisfied and 6% dissatisfied. Sprint is the big winner here, with 85% satisfied, followed by AT&T at 77%, Verizon at 76% and T-Mobile at 71%. (Only 54% of the smaller carriers’ users in our survey population are satisfied with phone selection.)
Tech support and customer service
More people than not are satisfied with their carrier's technical support this year — 59% are satisfied and only 8% dissatisfied. That continues a gradual upward trend: In 2014 only 48% were satisfied, and 54% were satisfied in 2015.
For the fourth year in a row, T-Mobile wins this category: Seventy-one percent of its customers who took our survey report themselves as satisfied. Verizon has a 61% satisfaction rate, followed by AT&T with 58% and Sprint with 56%.
People are pretty satisfied with their carrier's customer service and billing, with 62% satisfied and 12% dissatisfied, the exact same percentages as last year.
T-Mobile wins here as well, with 70% of its customers satisfied. That's followed by Verizon with 61%, AT&T with 57% and Sprint with 54%.
Privacy and provider trustworthiness
Mobile providers have a tremendous amount of information about people’s lives, including their locations, contacts, websites they visit, apps they use, and much more. While privacy advocates worry about that, our survey found that users don’t. As in our 2015 survey, most people trust their carrier to properly handle their private data and don’t believe their carrier engages in deceptive business practices.
The trend here is positive: This year 72% of respondents rate their carrier as trustworthy, while 13% rate their carrier as untrustworthy and 15% say they have no opinion. Last year, 69% rated carriers as trustworthy versus 16% untrustworthy, and in 2014, 63% of respondents rated their carriers as trustworthy and 22% considered them untrustworthy.
Even though people rate providers highly for privacy issues, 46% of respondents are more worried now about the privacy of their mobile data than they were a year earlier. (Five percent are less worried and 49% have the same level of concern.) Despite these fears, only 3% say their phone has ever been compromised or hacked.
Not much more than a third of respondents (38%) say they have changed how they use mobile apps or mobile data in the past year because of privacy concerns, while the remaining 62% say they haven't changed their mobile behavior because of privacy fears.
Those who have made changes cite a variety of safety measures, including avoiding untrusted apps and websites (75%); using fingerprint unlock, stronger passcodes or two-factor authentication (73%); avoiding public Wi-Fi (65%); and restricting app permissions including access to location (63%).
Unlocked phones or in-store mobile purchases? Not yet
Nearly two years ago, in February 2015, regulations went into effect that required carriers to allow customers to unlock their phones if they want to switch carriers. And as long-term contracts fall out of favor, more consumers are buying unsubsidized, unlocked phones that aren't tied to a carrier's contract. So we asked whether people unlock their phones or buy unlocked phones.
The answer is a resounding no: Only 9% of respondents have unlocked their smartphones this year, and only 20% have bought a new unlocked phone.
Each year prognosticators say that in-store purchases made from smartphones using payment services such as Apple Pay, Android Pay, Google Wallet, PayPal and Samsung Pay will finally hit the big time. So we wanted to see if 2016 would finally be the year mobile payments took off.
It wasn’t. Only 25% of our respondents report making even a single in-store mobile payment. And things don’t look different for next year, because a mere 19% of respondents who haven't tried in-store mobile purchases yet say they plan to do so.
Mobile data use
How do you use your mobile data? Is your connection good enough for watching videos – and do you often watch them? Do you connect using 4G or 3G networks? We asked these questions and more in our 2016 survey.
We wondered how much time people spend online with their phones versus other devices, and we found that laptop and desktop computers still rule. Respondents cumulatively spend 60% of their time online with laptops and desktops, 26% of the time on smartphones and 11% of the time on tablets, with the remaining 3% split between gaming consoles and other devices, notably smart TVs and media-streaming devices such as Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku.
When people are using their phones online, 4G networks are the norm, continuing a trend we’ve seen in our last several surveys. Sixty-three percent of respondents connect solely via a 4G connection; 26% connect via 4G or 3G, depending on where they are; and only 4% connect solely on 3G. That compares to 60% connecting solely via 4G in 2015, and 55% in 2014.
With all-you-can-eat data plans no longer dominant, people are careful how long they use their data connections. Only 20% of respondents say they use their data connection for more than an hour a day, 32% use it for between 20 minutes and an hour, 21% use it for between 10 and 20 minutes, and 21% use it for less than 10 minutes. (These numbers don't include the amount of time they use Wi-Fi connections.) These percentages are almost precisely what we found last year.
Thirty-five percent of respondents report using their phones more for business in 2016 than in 2015, for activities such as checking work email, using productivity apps and accessing data in the cloud. Only 12% say they're using their phones less for work. The rest say business use is unchanged. Only 19% of respondents who use their personal smartphone for work are fully or partially compensated for their phone expenses by their employer, and only 34% say their employer has a formal policy regarding the use of smartphones at work.
What do you use your data connection for? Four activities are cited by more than half of respondents: emailing by 65%; web searches and browsing by 63%; GPS navigation and maps by 63%; and getting local data such as weather, business hours and transit info by 57%. Only two other activities reach the 30% mark: reading news with 40% and using social media with 30%.
Only 22% of people are watching more videos than a year ago, and 13% are watching fewer, with 65% saying their video-watching has stayed the same. And only 19% of respondents say they are using their mobile data connection to stream or download video, music, podcasts or books.
Still, when they watch, they get reasonable data connections: 16% of respondents say their mobile network is always fast enough for watching video, 41% say it's fast enough most of the time, and 14% say it's sometimes fast enough. One percent say it's never fast enough. That’s down from last year, when 24% of respondents said their mobile network was always fast enough, 58% said it was fast enough most of the time, and 18% said it was sometimes fast enough.
Plans, contracts and costs
For the fourth year in a row, family plans are more popular than any other type: 54% of respondents have family plans, 27% are on individual phone plans, 12% have data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets, and 6% are on business plans.
In 2016, providers moved increasingly away from long-term contracts, and our survey shows that users are following suit. In the contract model, carriers subsidized the cost of premium smartphones up front and made that money back by locking customers into a pricey two-year contract. With no-contract plans, you pay the full price of the phone but are free to leave your carrier without facing a stiff penalty. All providers offer no-contract models, although some also have options for long-term contracts.
For the first time since we’ve been conducting this survey, an equal number of people have no contracts and long-term contracts – a 50-50 split. Last year, 61% of respondents were on long-term contracts and 39% on month-to-month plans. In 2014, 65% were on long-term contracts, and in 2013, 84% had long-term contracts. We expect that next year, no-contract plans will be the norm.
Each year we’ve been offering this survey, fewer people have used unlimited data plans compared to the year before. This year, 36% of respondents are on unlimited plans, 55% are on tiered plans, and 9% aren’t sure. Last year, 39% of respondents said they were on unlimited plans. In our 2014 survey, 42% said were on unlimited plans and in the 2013 survey, 56% of respondents were.
However, the trend away from unlimited data plans may be reversing itself: In January 2016 AT&T rolled out an unlimited data plan, albeit one that’s available only to its DirecTV and U-Verse TV customers. And both T-Mobile and Sprint launched new unlimited data plans over the summer. In fact, for new customers T-Mobile is offering only its unlimited plans, although current customers can keep their existing plans. It will be interesting to see if there’s an uptick in respondents who have unlimited data plans in our 2017 survey.
Of course, “unlimited” data plans often do have limits: Many, including some of Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s new plans, throttle connection speeds for certain types or quantities of data consumption. Of the 176 respondents who have unlimited data plans, more than a quarter (26%) report that their carrier slows down data connections after a certain data limit is reached, while 39% say their carrier doesn’t do so, and 35% aren’t sure.
In terms of pricing plans for mobile data services, nearly all respondents have voice-and-data bundles rather than data-only plans, with 86% having a bundle and 14% having data service only. That compares to 81% having a bundled plan and 19% having data service only in 2015.
In the data-only group, 33% of respondents pay $40 or less for service each month, 27% pay between $41 and $80, and 21% pay more than $80. The rest are not sure how much they pay. (Keep in mind that some survey takers’ employers pay for their mobile data service.) There are some well-heeled data guzzlers out there: Six percent of respondents pay more than $200 a month for data alone.
No surprise: People with bundled voice and data have higher monthly bills. Twenty-two percent pay $60 or less per month, 25% pay between $61 and $100, 20% pay between $101 and $150, and 28% pay more than $150. Four percent aren't sure how much they pay. The numbers are almost identical to those of a year ago.
Still early days for free video streaming
Providers have begun to offer unlimited data for certain services such as streaming video. T-Mobile’s Binge On service, for example, allows certain subscribers to stream video for free from services including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO Now, while AT&T offers free video streaming to customers who also use its DirecTV or U-Verse TV services — all without tapping into customers’ monthly data cap. And both Verizon and AT&T offer services that let customers accumulate free data in exchange for viewing or downloading sponsored content or apps. We wanted to find out if people are taking advantage of such programs.
So far, the answer is largely no. Forty-two percent of respondents don’t know whether their carrier offers free video streaming, 27% say their carrier has the service, and 31% say their carrier doesn’t have the service. Of those few who say their carrier has the service, 49% are satisfied with it, 4% are not satisfied with it, and 47% don’t use it.
Even fewer people seem to know about or be interested in accumulating free data in exchange for viewing sponsored content. Only 1% of respondents say their carrier offers such a program, 43% say it doesn’t, and 56% don’t know. Among those who say their carrier does not offer a program like this, just 28% say they would use it if it were offered, and 72% say they wouldn’t.
Why you chose your mobile provider
How do people choose their mobile providers — based on price, coverage, plan options, the availability of a specific phone? Did they want a no-contract plan, or did their employer choose the carrier? We asked survey respondents to rank the importance of 12 factors, with 1 being the most important.
For the third consecutive year, network coverage in the U.S. was the most important factor, with 61% of respondents ranking it either No. 1 or No. 2. Next was price, with 52% ranking it 1 or 2. Those were the two most popular factors by far, with no other reason cited as a 1 or 2 by more than 50% of respondents. Being a longtime customer was important for 26% of respondents, who gave that reason a 1 or 2. And moving to an unlimited data plan was given a 1 or 2 by 23% of respondents. The rest of the factors came in more or less equal, including getting a discount with the provider through an employer, moving to a no-contract plan, and sticking with the same provider because they’re happy with their current service, among others.
Switch providers? No thank you
Very few respondents have switched carriers in the past year – only 10%. Of those who switched, 70% switched once, 15% switched twice, and 15% jumped ship more than twice. Why switch? Price (77%), coverage and reliability (53%), and plan options (49%) are the most frequently cited reasons.
Only 27% of respondents are considering switching to another provider, nearly identical to last year’s 28%. They cite the same three reasons for potentially switching: 77% say cost may cause them to switch, followed by plan options at 43% and coverage and reliability at 40%.
The rankings: Best and worst mobile data providers
Which data providers are ranked best by their customers? We used weighted averages on a scale of 1 to 5, did some number-crunching, and came up with the results. (See "How the survey was conducted and graded" for details.)
T-Mobile barely squeaked out a win over Verizon this year, scoring the top rating for the third year in a row. It had the top rankings for five of eight categories, and beat all comers with a weighted rating of 3.95 out of 5. Verizon was just behind it, with a 3.89 ranking. Next came Sprint with a 3.78 and AT&T with 3.67.
T-Mobile won five categories, often by slim margins over Verizon. But in one category it dominated: performance relative to cost — in other words, bang for the buck, or value — where it had a 3.98 rating, well ahead of second-place Sprint, which had a 3.62 rating. Next came Verizon with 3.39, and then AT&T with 3.24. It’s the fourth year in a row that T-Mobile had a big win in this category.
T-Mobile has been the leader the past several years in introducing no-contract, no-phone-subsidy plans, which is likely why it keeps winning the value category. But now all other providers are following suit, so we’ll have to see whether T-Mobile will still be the value leader in next year’s survey.
In the 2016 survey, T-Mobile also led the ratings for average download speed (with a rating of 4.02 to Verizon’s 3.96), average upload speed (3.87 to Verizon’s 3.81), technical support (3.97 to Verizon’s 3.78) and customer service/billing (3.89 to Verizon’s 3.72). Factor in its strong showing in the network performance categories, the value category and the softer categories of dealing with customers, and it’s no surprise that T-Mobile was the overall winner.
Verizon, as in years past, did well in the network performance categories, coming in first for availability of connection (4.29) and reliability of connection (4.17). It also came in second to T-Mobile in average upload and download speeds, technical support and customer service/billing.
Sprint was the only other provider to win a category, phone selection, with a 4.23 rating. But the real story with Sprint is its significantly improved customer satisfaction ratings in network availability, reliability and performance. That in turn has brought its overall weighted rating up from 3.54 in 2015 to 3.78 this year – a very positive trend for a carrier that has been struggling to attract subscribers for years.
AT&T, meanwhile, found no love from its customers, finishing dead last in six of eight categories.
You can download our survey results PDF below.
Bottom line and what's next
Top rankings are one thing, but having lots of customers is another entirely. And even though T-Mobile won the customer satisfaction crown yet again from us, it still lags well behind Verizon and AT&T in subscribers. That said, it is gaining ground. Research firm Strategy Analytics reports that in the third quarter of 2016 Verizon had 143.9 million customers, AT&T 133.3 million, T-Mobile 69.4 million and Sprint 59.2 million. A year earlier, in the third quarter of 2015, Verizon had 137.6 million customers, AT&T had 126.4 million, T-Mobile 61.2 million and Sprint 58.1 million. So in that time T-Mobile gained the most customers, about 8 million, while Verizon gained about 6 million, AT&T gained about 7 million, and Sprint only about 2 million. So, T-Mobile added roughly 1 million more customers than AT&T over that year, 2 million more than Verizon, and 6 million more than Sprint.
Those gains may be hard to sustain next year, because all the other providers have followed T-Mobile's lead in doing away with long-term contracts and subsidized phones, a strategy that has been spurring T-Mobile's growth.
One takeaway from our survey is that Sprint's upgrade and buildout of its data network is paying off when it comes to customer satisfaction. In line with our own survey findings, Gartner analyst Bill Menezes says he has seen research saying customers are more satisfied with the Sprint network. "The perception used to be that if you used Sprint you'd have problems getting a data connection, but that's no longer the case," he adds.
As for what to expect in wireless in 2017, expect a lot. Consumers are hungry for the old "all-you-can-eat" unlimited data plans, and carriers may promote plans that seem to be unlimited, but in fact, aren't quite that. Such unlimited plans may include throttling after a certain amount of data is used or for certain types of data, Menezes says. And carriers will likely roll out more video streaming options, again with throttled bandwidth. "Clearly, video is getting more important," he says. "People won't really mind having to stream at a lower resolution, because you don't need all that resolution to watch video on a small smartphone screen."
If you're hoping for superfast 5G networks in 2017, you'll be disappointed. Those networks are probably years away. In fact, the 5G standard hasn't even been finalized yet. But in the meantime, carriers will continue to upgrade their existing 4G networks. Sprint, in particular, has aggressive plans to boost its network capacity and speed.
As for new entries into the market, Comcast has said it's going to jump into the wireless market in the middle of 2017. Rather than build its own data network, it's going to follow in the footsteps of Google's Project Fi, which uses Wi-Fi voice calling, and only switches to a data network if no Wi-Fi is available. Comcast has 15 million hotspots, and if customers are out of reach of one, they'll automatically be switched to the Verizon service.
The biggest changes in the wireless landscape in the coming years probably won't be due to actions taken by the carriers such as introducing free streaming or changing the plans they offer. Instead, they're likely to come from Washington, D.C. Under President Obama, the Federal Communications Commission has taken what it believes are consumer-friendly actions, such as establishing net neutrality as the law of the land. Under President Trump, that kind of action is likely to change. He has announced he will cut as many regulations as possible, and said he is against net neutrality.
Also worth considering: The Trump administration is likely to be more friendly to a merger of big carriers than was the Obama administration. In 2011, AT&T announced it was going to buy T-Mobile, but the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against it and AT&T abandoned the plan. Sprint and T-Mobile considered a merger in 2014, but when regulators signaled they were likely to oppose it, the plans were dropped. But a merger announcement in 2017 or soon thereafter wouldn't be out of the question.
An even bigger bombshell could be a merger between a wireless carrier and a cable company. UBS analyst John Hodulik wrote in a research note that such a merger would not be a surprise under new leadership at the FCC and DOJ. Given the partnership between Comcast and Verizon over Comcast's entry into wireless, a Comcast/Verizon merger could be on the horizon.
Will any of this happen, and how will it affect mobile data services? At this point, no one knows. But we do know one thing: 2017 should be a wild ride for wireless. Check back often for Computerworld's wireless coverage. And, of course, we'll do our annual mobile data customer satisfaction survey next year as well.