The votes are in: Which mobile data provider is best?

Find out which carrier gets the most cheers -- and which the most jeers -- from our 2015 survey respondents.

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Your mobile data use

How do you use your mobile data? Do you connect mainly to 4G or 3G networks? Is your connection suitable for regularly watching videos? Those are just a few of the questions we asked in our 2015 survey.

We found, not surprisingly, that 4G networks are now the norm for data connections, continuing a trend that we saw in our survey the previous year. Sixty percent of respondents say they connect solely via a 4G connection of some kind, while only 8% connect solely on 3G. (In 2014, some 55% connected solely via 4G, and 14% relied solely on 3G.)

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

These figures understate how widely used 4G networks have become, because 26% of people say they connect via either 3G or 4G depending on their location. That means 86% of people use a 4G network at some point.

T-Mobile customers have the highest 4G use, with 72% saying they connect via 4G and 21% saying either 3G or 4G depending on their location. Sixty-three percent of Verizon and AT&T customers connect via 4G, while Sprint customers are stuck in the slow lane — only 34% connect solely via 4G.

Because tiered-data plans are the norm, people pay attention to how much time they spend using their data connections. Only 9% of respondents say they use their data connection for more than three hours a day, 21% use it for between one and three hours, 33% use it for between 20 minutes and an hour, 21% use it for between 10 to 20 minutes, and 16% use it for less than 10 minutes. (Note that these numbers don't include the amount of time they use Wi-Fi connections.) These percentages are almost precisely what we found last year, and closely align with what we found in 2013 as well.

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Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

The numbers vary by carrier, though, with 43% of Sprint customers using a data connection for more than an hour each day (probably because of the preponderance of unlimited plans among Sprint customers) and only 29% of AT&T customers using it for more than an hour.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents say they used their phones more for business in 2015 than in 2014 for activities such as checking work email, using productivity apps and accessing data in the cloud. Only 10% say they're using their phones less for work. The rest say business use is unchanged.

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Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

Only 21% of respondents who use their personal smartphone for work are fully or partially compensated for their expenses by their employer, and only 37% say their employer has a formal policy regarding the use of smartphones at work.

What do people use their data connection for? Four activities are cited by more than half of respondents: emailing by 70%, Web searches and browsing by 64%, GPS navigation and maps by 61%, and getting local data (weather, business hours/ratings, transit info, etc.) by 51%. Only two other activities break the 30% mark: reading news with 38% and using social media with 34%.

What do you primarily use your mobile data connection for?

Select your 5 most frequent activities

Web searches and browsing
GPS navigation (maps, directions)
Getting local data (weather, business hours/ratings, transit info, etc.)
Reading news
Social media
Streaming and downloading music, videos or, podcasts or books
Using cloud storage/productivity tools (notes, tasks, calendars, contacts, etc.)
Uploading and downloading photos
Using your phone as a mobile hotspot
Downloading apps
Playing online games
Making VoIP calls
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

The use of mobile phones for watching video seems to be growing, albeit slowly: 27% of people say they're watching more videos than a year ago, and 13% are watching fewer, with 60% saying their video-watching has stayed the same. That said, only 20% of respondents use their mobile data connection to stream or download music, video, podcasts or books. When they do, it seems to work pretty well: 24% of respondents say their mobile network is always fast enough for watching video, 58% say it's fast enough most of the time, and 18% say it's sometimes fast enough. Less than half of 1% say it's never fast enough.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

Plans, contracts and costs

For the third year in a row, family plans are far more popular than any other type: 48% of survey respondents are on family plans, 27% are on individual plans, and the rest are almost evenly split between data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets (13%) and business plans (12%). The numbers almost precisely mirror the results for 2014 and 2013, with the slight exception that for the first time data-sharing plans were more popular than business plans.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

Long-term contracts are slowly on the way out. Under the old 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 increasingly popular no-contract plans, however, you pay the full price of the phone but are free to leave your carrier without facing a stiff penalty. T-Mobile moved to a no-contract service model years ago, and in 2015, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T began moving away from contracts as well.

Because these changes are recent for three of the big carriers, many of our survey respondents still have long-term contracts, but those numbers are dwindling. Some 61% of 2015 respondents are on contracts and 39% on month-to-month plans. In 2014, 65% were on long-term contracts, and the year before that a whopping 84% had long-term contracts. We expect that contract number to continue to drop every year as customers' current contracts expire.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

Here's a piece of no-news: Unlimited data plans are also becoming a thing of the past. Thirty-nine percent of respondents say they are on unlimited plans and 55% on tiered plans. (The rest are not sure what kind of plan they're on.) In our 2014 survey, 42% said they were on unlimited plans and 50% on tiered contracts. And in our 2013 survey, 56% of respondents said they were on unlimited plans and 40% on tiered plans.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

Sprint and T-Mobile's attempt to differentiate themselves by offering unlimited data plans seems to have paid off, particularly at Sprint, where 78% of respondents say they have unlimited data. At T-Mobile, 65% say they have unlimited data plans. Only 27% of Verizon customers and 31% of AT&T customers say they have unlimited plans.

Almost everyone who responded to our survey has voice-and-data bundles rather than data-only plans, with 81% having the bundles and 19% having data service only. Those numbers are almost identical to our findings for 2014.

In the data-only group, 40% of respondents say they pay $40 or less for service each month, 26% pay between $41 and $80, and 25% pay more than $80. The rest are not sure how much they pay. Those numbers vary by carrier. Fifty-two percent of T-Mobile customers who took our survey pay $40 or less for data only, along with 50% of Sprint customers, 36% of AT&T customers and 29% of Verizon customers.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 169 respondents.

Unsurprisingly, those with bundled voice and data have higher monthly bills. Twenty-two percent pay $60 or less per month, 26% pay between $61 and $100, 20% pay between $101 and $150, and 28% pay more than $150. Five percent aren't sure how much they pay. Sprint and T-Mobile customers also have the lowest bills for bundled service: 45% of Sprint customers pay $80 or less, as do 42% of T-Mobile customers. Only 25% of Verizon customers and 22% of AT&T customers pay that amount.

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 702 respondents.

Why you chose your mobile provider

How do people choose which mobile provider to use — is it 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 eight factors, with 1 being the most important and 8 being the least important.

For the second year in a row, network coverage was the most important factor, with 66% of respondents ranking it either No. 1 or No. 2. Next was price, with 53% ranking it 1 or 2. Many people simply don't want to go through the bother of switching: 42% gave a 1 or 2 ranking to staying with their existing carrier simply because they are longtime customers. Specific plan options played a lesser role, with 33% of respondents giving that a ranking of 1 or 2. The rest of the factors come in about equal, with roughly a quarter of respondents indicating that the availability of a no-contract plan or a specific phone was an important factor in their decision, that their employer selected the carrier, or that they're happy with their current carrier and have no reason to switch.

Did you choose your carrier based on...

Percentage of respondents who ranked each reason 1 or 2, where 1 is most important and 8 least important

Longtime customer
Plan options
Wanted a no-contract plan
Company selected
No reason to switch/happy with service
Specific phone
Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015. Base: 870 respondents.

We asked people to write in other factors that influenced their decision. Common responses include getting a discount from their workplace, the quality of customer service offered by the carrier, and the ability to use their phone and service when traveling abroad.

The rankings: Best and worst mobile data providers

So which data providers have the most and least satisfied 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.)

Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2015.
Base: 786 customers of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

T-Mobile is the clear favorite among 2015 survey respondents, just as it was in 2014. In 2015 it had the top rankings for five of the eight categories, and topped the field with a weighted rating of 3.94 out of 5. At 3.75 overall, Verizon placed second. Next came AT&T with a 3.57 rating, followed closely by Sprint with a 3.54. In 2014, AT&T placed second, Verizon third, and Sprint trailed the other three.

T-Mobile dominated many categories, but one stood out above all others: performance relative to cost — in other words, bang for the buck — where it had a 4.1 score, far ahead of second finisher in that category, Sprint, which had a 3.5 rating. Verizon was third in the category, at 3.3, and AT&T had 3.2.

This is the third 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 — so it's not surprising that the other major carriers are now following in T-Mobile's footsteps with similar offerings for no-contract, no-subsidy plans.

In the 2015 survey, T-Mobile also led the ratings for average upload speeds (with a rating of 4), average download speeds (4.1), technical support (4) and customer service/billing (4). Given that it did so well in both the network performance categories and the softer categories of dealing with customers, it's no surprise that it was ranked so high in performance relative to cost.

Verizon, as in years past, did well in the network performance categories, coming in first for availability of connection (4) and reliability of connection (3.9). It also came in second to T-Mobile in average download speeds (3.9) and average upload speeds (3.8).

Sprint won only a single category, phone selection, with a 4.2 rating, barely ahead of its rivals. The best AT&T could muster, meanwhile, was a second-place finish for availability of connection (3.7); it came in third or fourth in all other categories.

Note: If you'd like to see the raw figures we used to calculate these ratings, download our survey results PDF.

Download the results of Computerworld's 2015 mobile data service survey to see how readers rate AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon on network speed, value, tech support and more. Computerworld

Bottom line

Top rankings are important for more than bragging rights — companies that get high marks tend to do well in business as well. That was true of T-Mobile in 2015. By the middle of the year, it had surpassed Sprint in total subscribers, although at 61.2 million subscribers, T-Mobile still lags far behind Verizon with 137.6 million subscribers and AT&T with 126.4 million.

T-Mobile gained subscribers over the last several years in part because it's been a pioneer in eliminating long-term contracts and subsidized phones. Its competitors followed suit in 2015: Verizon stopped subsidizing phones and began moving away from contracts, and AT&T has been doing the same thing. Sprint joined the party in 2015 as well. So we'll have to see whether that blunts T-Mobile's growth in 2016.

Another reason for T-Mobile's growth spurt is the company's aggressive expansion and improvement of its network in recent years — something Sprint has been concentrating on as well. It shows: After conducting nationwide performance tests of the four major carriers' networks in the second half of 2015, testing firm RootMetrics declared that all four networks are strong. Although Verizon came in first for network reliability, network speed, data performance, call performance, text performance and overall performance, RootMetrics noted that Verizon's overall performance score of 94.5 out of 100 wasn't far ahead of the others' scores of 91.3 (AT&T), 86 (Sprint) and 80.9 (T-Mobile).

When Sprint looks to the future, however, it may see dark days ahead. Our survey results show that it's been the least-loved carrier for years, and the subscriber numbers show that it's now the least popular as well. Back in 2014 there was talk of a merger with T-Mobile, but the Obama administration made clear it preferred the competition of having four major carriers, not three, so the deal was nixed. But there will be a new administration in 2017. If Sprint continues to slip, don't be surprised to see merger talk spring up again.

Perhaps the biggest wireless news of the year was that carriers must now legally allow phones to be unlocked by consumers, so consumers can now move with them from one carrier to another. That, plus the ending of phone subsidies and the slow death of long-term contracts, puts pressure on all four carriers to deliver a better data network and better customer service if they want to thrive, because no longer can they count on customer lock-in via long-term contracts.

One way carriers are hoping to differentiate themselves is by allowing customers unlimited data for certain services, even as they hold onto tiered plans. T-Mobile's Binge On service, for instance, offers some customers unlimited video streaming from various content providers — Netflix, HBO GO, HBO NOW, Showtime and Hulu, among many others. AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, have announced sponsored data services that allow customers access to content, websites and apps from certain providers without being charged for data; these programs also let consumers accumulate free data by taking surveys or clicking on ads. However, allowing unlimited streaming from certain providers only might violate Federal Communications Commission net neutrality rules, and the agency has written to both T-Mobile and AT&T asking for more details about their offerings.

It all adds up to what could well be a wild 2016 in the wireless world. Check back often for Computerworld's wireless coverage. And, of course, we'll do our annual mobile data provider survey next year as well.

This story, "The votes are in: Which mobile data provider is best?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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