Consumer Reports ranks AT&T as worst U.S. carrier

AT&T's consumer survey ratings plunge as iPhone 4 ties trio of Samsung Android smartphones for first place

Consumer Reports today named AT&T as the worst U.S. mobile service provider, but said its reader survey puts Apple's iPhone, which only uses AT&T, in a tie for first place with a trio of Samsung smartphones running Android.

The magazine's annual survey of over 58,000 subscribers ranked AT&T in last place -- as it was this time last year -- but showed that its overall score dropped significantly, widening the margin between it and the next-best carrier.

"AT&T was the only carrier with scores that dropped significantly in our satisfaction survey," said Consumer Reports in its ratings report. "AT&T is now positioned in last place overall and in almost every market we rate."

Consumer Reports' score of 60 out of a possible 100 for AT&T was six points lower than the provider's 2009 number, while the difference between AT&T and the top-ranked U.S. Cellular was 22 points, more than twice the 9-point gap between AT&T and Verizon last year.

According to the publication, AT&T placed last in all 23 metro markets it surveyed. The carrier did poorest in San Francisco, where its score of 51 trailed Sprint by 23 points.

AT&T scored 58 or lower in several other cities, including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York.

Verizon and T-Mobile each dropped a point, to 74 and 69, respectively, in this year's survey, while Sprint climbed six points to 73. U.S. Cellular, which serves 26 states, most of them in the Midwest, took honors with 82.

But while AT&T was in Consumer Reports' doghouse, Apple's iPhone tied for first place in the smartphone category with three Samsung models, all of which use Google's Android mobile operating system.

The iPhone 4's score of 76 was the same as the numbers for Samsung's Captivate, Epic 4G and Vibrant, said Consumer Reports.

Apple's $99 iPhone 3GS rated 74 out of 100.

Several other Android-powered smartphones, including Motorola's Droid 2 and Droid X, and HTC's Droid Incredible, scored 75.

Consumer Reports did not list the iPhone 4 among its recommended smartphones, a practice it began last summer after buyers complained that holding the new model certain ways dropped calls or lowered their signal strength.

Although Apple offered free cases to iPhone 4 owners as its solution to what CEO Steve Jobs dubbed "Antennagate," Consumer Reports continued to withhold its recommendation after Apple discontinued the automatic distribution of cases in September, saying the move was "not acceptable" because it put the burden on consumers.

AT&T's scores in eight of the nine individual ratings used to compile its total were the lowest among all carriers, with both voice and data service, as well as all aspects of customer service, at the bottom.

"We take this seriously and we continually look for new ways to improve the customer experience," an AT&T spokeswoman said in reply to a request for comment on the carrier's poor showing in Consumer Reports' survey.

If analyst predictions are accurate, U.S. consumers will get a chance to use the iPhone on another carrier, most likely Verizon, in early 2011.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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