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

February 3, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Bottom line

It's a data-centric mobile world, and becoming even more so. That means that data network availability, reliability and speed will continue to be a big differentiator among cell service providers and a primary reason for consumers' carrier choice.

So it's no surprise that Verizon Wireless, which came out on top in our survey for data speed and reliability, has the most U.S. subscribers with 120 million, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. And AT&T, which came in at second fastest in our survey, is also the second most popular provider, with about 105 million subscribers.

But this could all change in a heartbeat: Providers are constantly investing in their data networks, and AT&T and T-Mobile in particular have been rapidly expanding their LTE networks in 2013. And Sprint, which has been hemorrhaging unhappy subscribers, is reportedly considering a buyout of T-Mobile, which would completely change the mobile provider landscape.

To keep up with such changes, we'll be conducting another survey later in the year. Stay tuned for those results.

How the survey was conducted and graded

The open-participation survey on which this story is based was conducted among readers of Computerworld's newsletters from May 13, 2013 to June 30, 2013, via an online link. Only the responses of those who indicated that they currently resided in the United States, had a smartphone and used a mobile data service were collected, for a total of 820 qualified responses.

Readers were asked to rate their providers according to eight 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, readers were given five choices: very satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, dissatisfied and very dissatisfied.

There are two sets of numbers for each provider in each category. You can download a chart showing the raw percentages (download PDF) for the favorability for each provider in each category so that you can see in detail how readers rank each one. But raw numbers don't allow an easy means of comparison. So from those percentages, we calculated an overall number (on a five-point scale) for each provider in each category.

To do that, we multiplied the number of very satisfied responses in each category for each provider by five, the number of satisfied responses by four, the number of neither satisfied nor dissatisfied responses by three, the number of dissatisfied responses by two, and the number of very dissatisfied responses by one.

We then totaled those numbers and divided the sum by the total number of responses for that provider to arrive at the rating number for that category for the service provider. The maximum rating is a five.

To arrive at the overall rankings, we averaged the ratings for each provider in all eight categories, again on a five-point scale.

is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about Wireless Carriers in Computerworld's Wireless Carriers Topic Center.



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