AT&T's efforts to upgrade its 3G network in response to complaints about spotty iPhone service don't seem to have made much difference yet. The carrier was the lowest-rated U.S. wireless operator, according to a new cell-service customer satisfaction survey by Consumer Reports. And of all carriers rated, AT&T was the only one to suffer a significant drop in overall satisfaction.
The findings, based on a survey of 58,000 ConsumerReports.org readers, is part is part of Consumer Reports' annual cell-phone package, which appears in the January print issue hitting newsstands and on its Web site on Tuesday.
It will not be pleasant reading for AT&T. The study found that iPhone owners in particular were much less satisfied with their carrier, and rated data service (Web and e-mail) lower than owners of smartphones on other carriers that also offer host of apps to encourage heavy data use.
"Our survey suggests that an iPhone from Verizon Wireless, which is rumored, could indeed be good news for iPhone fans," said Paul Reynolds, Consumer Reports' electronics editor, in a blog post Monday. Verizon is expected to begin offering the iPhone early next year, ending AT&T's exclusive partnership with Apple to carry the device. At least one study has projected it could lead to a significant number of customer defections.
But Verizon may feel a bit chagrined itself with the results of this year's survey, with U.S. Cellular beating out the nation's largest carrier as the top-rated provider for contract service. But since U.S. Cellular only serves 26 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, Verizon remains the top-rated among the four national carriers with a score of 74 in Consumer Reports' 100-point system.
Verizon was trailed closely by Sprint, with 73 points, followed by T-Mobile with 69 and AT&T with 60. Consumer Reports noted that Sprint had scored better than Verizon in some aspects of customer service in what Reynolds called "a remarkable turnaround." AT&T, by contrast, received the lowest possible rating of "Worse" in eight out of nine categories, earning a higher rating only for SMS service quality.
In a statement issued Monday about the survey, AT&T said: "We take this seriously and we continually look for new ways to improve the customer experience." It went on to reiterate its claim to having the nation's fastest mobile broadband network, based on independent tests. "And our dropped call rate is within 1/10 of a percent -- the equivalent of just one call in a thousand -- of the industry leader."
In June, AT&T announced completion of its initiative to upgrade the capacity of its 3G network in New York City, where much of the dissatisfaction with the carrier's iPhone service had emanated, along with San Francisco. As a result of the upgrade in New York, AT&T said customers in the area would "experience improved 3G wireless voice and data connectivity and performance, especially during peak hours."
But based on the Consumer Reports study, AT&T customers -- especially iPhone users -- are hardly enjoying improved service. AT&T and the other major carriers are all in the process of building out a 4G network to offer faster service and a wider range of non-voice services. To that end, Verizon last week said it was rolling out its 4G network in 38 metropolitan areas -- including New York, L.A. and Chicago -- starting Dec. 5.