Which mobile data provider is best? (And will you make a switch?)

Survey respondents have chosen a new customer satisfaction winner among the big four mobile data service providers.

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Plans, contracts and costs

For the second year running, family plans are far more popular with our readers than any other type: 49% of survey respondents are on family plans and 32% are on individual plans, with the remainder nearly evenly split between business plans (10%) and data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets (9%). These numbers are almost identical to 2013's, which had 50% on family plans, 27% on individual plans, 12% on business plans and 11% on data-sharing plans.

 
Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014. Base: 652 respondents.

Although long-term contracts are still the most popular, with 65% of respondents being on those contracts, 28% on month-to-month plans and 7% using prepaid services, that's a considerable change from the previous year, with long-term contracts becoming much less popular and month-to-month plans becoming much more popular. In 2013, 84% of respondents were on long-term contracts, 12% were month to month and 4% were on prepaid plans.

 
Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014. Base: 652 respondents.

As if you didn't know, unlimited data plans are on the way out. Some 42% of respondents are on unlimited plans and 50% on tiered plans. (The rest are not sure what kind of plan they're on.) That's a big turnaround from 2013, when 56% of respondents were on unlimited plans, 40% were on tiered plans and 4% didn't know.

 
Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014. Base: 652 respondents.

There's a dramatic difference among providers here, and it shows that Sprint's attempt to differentiate itself with unlimited plans continues to pay off, with 83% of its customers among our survey respondents saying they are on unlimited data plans. At the other end of the spectrum, only 26% of respondents who are Verizon customers say they're on unlimited plans. At 35% and 59%, respectively, AT&T and T-Mobile fall in between.

The vast majority of you report that you have voice-and-data bundles rather than data-only plans, with 80% having the bundles and 20% with data service only. In the data-only group, 45% of respondents say they pay $40 or less for service each month, 21% pay $41 to $60, 6% pay $61 to $80, 9% pay $81 to $100, and 14% pay $101 or more. Five percent of those responding don't know how much they pay.

 
Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014. Base: 652 respondents.

Those numbers vary dramatically according to carrier. Some 87% of T-Mobile customers who took our survey pay $40 or less, for example, while only 31% of Verizon customers say they pay $40 or less.

Those with bundled voice and data have higher monthly bills, as you might expect. Seven percent pay $40 or less per month, 16% pay between $41 and $60, 12% pay between $61 and $80, 12% pay between $81 and $100, 21% pay between $101 and $150, 16% pay between $151 and $200, and 12% pay more than $200. Five percent aren't sure how much they pay.

T-Mobile customers again have the lowest bills, with 52% paying up to $80. And again Verizon customers get hit the hardest, with only 20% paying $80 or less. That said, costs alone don't tell the whole story; it could be that many T-Mobile customers are paying for plans with a lower monthly data allowance than many Verizon customers.

 
Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014. Base: 652 respondents.

Why you chose your mobile provider

We wanted to know why people chose their carriers: price, coverage, plan options, the availability of a specific phone, or if a person's employer chose the carrier. We asked survey respondents to rank how important each factor was, with 1 being the most important and 7 being the least important.

Network coverage was by far the most important factor, with 78% of respondents ranking it either a No. 1 or No. 2. Next was price, with 57% ranking it a 1 or 2.

Did you choose your carrier based on...

Percentage of respondents who ranked each reason 1 or 2, where 1 is most important and 7 least important

Coverage
71%
Price
57%
Longtime customer
38%
Plan options
34%
Specific phone
21%
No reason to switch/happy with service
19%
Company selected
19%
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014
Base: 652 respondents

Inertia also plays a role in which provider people use: 38% gave a 1 or 2 ranking to saying they stay with their existing carrier simply because they are longtime customers. Specific plan options played a slightly lesser role, with 34% of respondents giving that a ranking of 1 or 2. Only 21% say the availability of a specific phone was important in choosing a carrier, 19% say they stay with their existing carrier because they're happy with it or have no reason to switch, and 19% report that their employer selected the carrier.

We also asked people to write in other factors that influenced their decision. Common responses include customer service, tech support, other family members using the same provider, and the option to eschew a long-term contract.

The rankings: Best and worst mobile data providers

Which are the best and which are the worst providers according to our survey takers? We crunched the numbers and came up with weighted averages on a scale of 1 to 5. (See "How the survey was conducted and graded" for details.)

Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2014
Base: 584 customers of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wirelesss

T-Mobile was the clear winner in our 2014 survey. With ratings at the top of six of the eight individual categories, it came in first with a total weighted rating of 3.70 out of 5. At 3.58 overall, AT&T placed second. Next came Verizon with a 3.49, followed by Sprint with a lowly 3.30 rating.

This is a significant change from 2013, when Verizon ruled the roost and T-Mobile was stuck in third place. AT&T retained its No. 2 spot from the previous year, and for the second year in a row Sprint was the clear loser, well behind the other major three carriers.

How did T-Mobile become the service provider with the most satisfied customers among our readers? For a start, by dominating the performance relative to cost rating — in other words, bang for the buck — where it rated a 3.9. Second-place AT&T was well behind at 3.2, and Verizon and Sprint both scored just 3.0. This is the second year in a row that T-Mobile's flexible pricing strategies, including its no-contract, no-phone-subsidy plans, appear to have paid big dividends in the value category.

In the current survey results, T-Mobile also led the satisfaction ratings for average upload speeds (3.7) and average download speeds (3.8), and saw incremental gains in its network availability (3.4) and reliability (3.5) ratings, perhaps due to its rapid LTE network expansion. These are all strong areas for Verizon as well; it came in first with a 3.8 for availability of connection and 3.6 for reliability of connection. In 2013, however, Verizon ran the table and ranked first in each of these four categories, with 3.8s and 3.9s across the board. (Note that these numbers represent customers' satisfaction rates in these areas, not actual network speed or reliability.)

T-Mobile was also ahead of the competition in two of the "softer" categories — technical support and customer service/billing. It scored a 3.6 in technical support, just ahead of Sprint's and Verizon's 3.5s and AT&T's 3.4. And T-Mobile had a 3.8 for customer service/billing, compared to 3.6 for Sprint and 3.5 for AT&T and Verizon.

As for phone selection, that was the sole category that Sprint won, with a 4.2 rating, nosing out AT&T at 4.1, and T-Mobile and Verizon at 4.

Note: If you'd like to see the raw figures we used to calculate these ratings, see our Final Results chart (PDF).

Bottom line

Clearly, 2014 was a very good year for T-Mobile. By mid-year, the company had finally begun to show a profit to the tune of $391 million as reported in July and was signing up customers in record numbers. Preliminary results for the fourth quarter showed it with 55 million customers, stealing subscribers from its rivals and coming within striking distance of No. 3 Sprint, although still well behind both No. 1 Verizon and No. 2 AT&T.

T-Mobile did that in part by eliminating monthly contracts and international data roaming charges. And as our survey results reflect, it ran the table when it comes to customer satisfaction, while also doing well in network access and performance.

Don't expect Verizon and AT&T to sit idle, though. They will likely play up their broader LTE network reach in the coming year as a way to stave off T-Mobile's charge, and they may well adopt some of the upstart provider's strategies. AT&T, for instance, has just announced monthly data rollovers for many of its subscribers, three weeks after T-Mobile announced a similar plan.

As for Sprint, it was the big loser for the second year running in our customer satisfaction survey, and its real-world numbers reflect that, with a loss of 1.8 million postpaid subscribers in the first three quarters of 2014. The company did, however, gain back about 30,000 postpaid subscribers in the fourth quarter by running a variety of promotions such as cutting prices and increasing data caps.

But while the price and promotion war was good for consumers' wallets in 2014, there's some concern among industry analysts that lower profits might prompt wireless providers to cut back on key infrastructure rollouts and technology improvements, which could negatively affect subscribers a couple years down the road.

What to expect in 2015? Stay tuned: We'll be conducting another survey later this year and telling you the results.

This story, "Which mobile data provider is best? (And will you make a switch?)" was originally published by Computerworld.

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