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

Find out how smartphone users rate AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon on data connection speed, reliability, customer service and more -- and what customers are using all that data for.

February 3, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - 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?

We set out to discover all that, and more, by turning to the experts -- you and other Computerworld readers. We conducted a six-week-long online survey asking smartphone users to rate their mobile Internet service provider in a variety of categories: average upload speeds, average download speeds, availability of connection, reliability of connection, performance relative to cost, technical support, selection of phone models and customer service/billing.

For each category, respondents were given five choices: very satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, dissatisfied and very dissatisfied. We tallied the results from our 820 respondents and came up with the winners ... and the losers.

The vast majority of our survey respondents, 93%, use one of the "big four" U.S. cellular service carriers: 37% use Verizon Wireless, 32% use AT&T, 14% use Sprint and 10% use T-Mobile, and those are the providers we've rated in this story. We did, however, include all survey responses when discussing overall satisfaction results, mobile data use and other general statistics.

(For detailed information about the survey and how we crunched the numbers, see "How the survey was conducted and graded.")

We asked other questions as well, about how often people use mobile data networks and for what, why they chose their mobile service provider, how much they pay monthly and more. Based on all the results, we've come up with a snapshot of mobile data use and satisfaction today.

We found, for example, that contrary to what you might think, people are generally satisfied with their data networks, with two-thirds saying they were either satisfied or very satisfied. We also found that only about a third of respondents use a mobile data network to stay connected via social media, and network coverage was the main reason people chose their current carrier.

We've discovered a lot more as well. Read on to find it all out.

What you think about mobile data service

Before we take an in-depth look at the winners and losers for mobile data service providers, let's see how, as a group, they rated with customers. From all the griping people like to do about mobile service providers, you'd expect that few users are really happy with them -- but people on the whole gave them solidly good ratings.

Editor's note: For the sake of readability, in the story text below we've combined the "very satisfied" and "satisfied" responses into a single "satisfied" percentage, and we've likewise combined the "dissatisfied" and "very dissatisfied" responses into a single "dissatisfied" percentage. The accompanying charts show the full percentage breakdowns.

Data connection availability and reliability

Let's start off with the basics: Are people satisfied with their data connection being there when they want it? In other words, how happy are they with the network coverage and availability -- can they get online wherever and whenever they want to?

Mouse over each pie slice to see its value.
Source: Computerworld mobile data services survey, 2013
Base: 820 respondents

The answer: Generally, yes. A full two thirds, 67%, said they were satisfied. Only 17% were dissatisfied.

But that varied greatly by carrier, with 77% of Verizon customers saying they were satisfied. At the other end of the spectrum, only 48% of Sprint customers reported themselves as satisfied, and more than a third of Sprint customers, 36%, said they were dissatisfied.

People are almost as pleased with the reliability of the connection (once they're connected, do they stay connected?) as its availability. Some 61% reported themselves as being satisfied. Less than a quarter, 18%, said they were dissatisfied.

Once again, Verizon was tops, with 70% saying they were satisfied and only 12% dissatisfied. T-Mobile and Sprint rated the worst. Only 44% of T-Mobile customers reported themselves as satisfied, and almost a quarter, 24%, said they were dissatisfied with T-Mobile's network reliability. Sprint fared no better, with 46% of its customers reporting themselves as satisfied and 36% saying they were dissatisfied.

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