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

Preston Gralla | Feb. 4, 2014
Which U.S. cell phone service is the best when it comes to what you really use a phone for these days -- data? Which gives you the most widespread and reliable access to its data network, fast upload and download speeds, the most bang for your buck?

Did you choose your carrier based on...

Percentage of respondents who ranked each reason 1 or 2, where 1 is most important and 5 least important

Coverage: 71%

Price: 50%

Plan options: 38%

Specific phone: 28%

Other: 16%

Source: Computerworld mobile data service survey, 2013

Base: 820 respondents

The results are clear: Network coverage was the most important factor overall, with 71% of people ranking it at either a 1 or a 2. Next was price, with 50% ranking it a 1 or 2.

Having a variety of plan options wasn't of overwhelming importance to people when they decided what carrier to choose — only 38% gave it a 1 or a 2. The availability of a specific phone was least important overall, with only 28% rating it as a 1 or 2.

Finally, 16% of respondents chose "other" as the primary or secondary factor in their carrier decision. Common reasons they wrote in included data speed, customer service, the reputation of the provider, the fact that family members use that provider, and loyalty to the provider. Others said they use their provider because they're on a company plan or because they receive an employee discount with that provider.

We'll delve more into why people chose each of the specific carriers later in the story.

The rankings: Best and worst mobile data providers

Which providers are ranked best and which the worst among our survey takers? We crunched the numbers and came up with weighted averages on a scale of 1 to 5.

Verizon was the solid favorite — with ratings at the top or near the top in every one of the eight individual categories, it came in first with a total weighted rating of 3.76 out of 5. At 3.71 overall, AT&T was a respectable number two, just ahead of T-Mobile with a 3.66. Sprint, meanwhile, was the clear loser at 3.42.

Verizon did particularly well in the categories grading the network's coverage and performance, receiving the highest ratings, mostly 3.8 and one 3.9, for download speed, upload speed, reliability of connection and availability of connection. AT&T came in second, with ratings of 3.6 or 3.7 for all those categories, and T-Mobile was third with ratings ranging from 3.3 to 3.8. Sprint was by far the worst performer, with the lowest rankings in every one of those categories, either a 3.1 or 3.2 for each.

As for the performance relative to cost rating — in other words, bang for the buck —T-Mobile's flexible pricing strategies including its no-contract, no-phone-subsidy plans seem to be paying big dividends. It didn't merely win this category, but blew away the competition with a 3.7 rating, compared to 3.3 for both AT&T and Verizon, and 3.2 for Sprint.


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