PhotoWhile the giants wage war on each other, the little guys scurry through the forest grabbing the low-hanging fruit and left-overs. This has been the way things work since the dinosaurs began losing ground to furry little critters they couldn't even see.

It still works that way in the cell phone business, according to the latest cell phone satisfaction survey by Consumer Reports magazine. It found Sprint has sunk to dead last among major carriers while Verizon Wireless again placed as the top major carrier.

AT&T and T-Mobile got what the magazine described as "mostly ho-hum marks."

It was the little companies most people have never heard of who came out on top. Tiny Consumer Cellular was the overall leader in the Consumer Reports cell service satisfaction survey, with stellar scores across the board – even though it uses the same network as lower-ranked AT&T.

As in previous CR surveys, no-contract and prepaid service from smaller companies such as Consumer Cellular -- which bills itself as "senior-friendly" -- and TracFone rated better than the major standard providers in customer satisfaction. Those carriers offer high-quality phones, relatively reliable service, and simpler, more consumer-friendly plans.

But not everyone is happy with Consumer Cellular, which advertises in AARP publications. 

Consumer Cellular Nov. 21, 2013, 5:41 p.m.
Consumers rate Consumer Cellular
"For shame to the AARP for giving Consumer Cellular its seal of approval," said Michael of Culver City, Calif., in a ConsumerAffairs posting earlier this month. "I was looking for a new cellphone and came across the ad for Consumer Cellular. It looked good on paper so I signed up for the cheapest voice, data service they had -- 200 minutes -- and as I went about setting up the phone I got a message the my minutes were about to run out!"
Michael said he upped the minutes in his plan, to no avail.
"I then went up to the five hundred minutes and noticed again, my minutes were disappearing even fast. This is a total rip, I wasn't even using any data nor the voice mail, two big users of time. I called to complain but got nowhere, so I cancelled my service and have sent the phone back to them. My advice is to monitor your usage and if you see it going up call them."
Inell of Southfield, Mich., also found her minutes disappearing rapidly. 

Complaints notwithstanding, Consumer Reports says the tide seems to be running in favor of the smaller independents. It's also worth noting that the CR ratings are based on a survey of 58,399 of the magazine's subscribers, a larger sample than ours.

“Our latest cell service satisfaction survey revealed a somewhat precipitous decline by Sprint that shuffled the rankings of the major standard service providers,” said Glenn Derene, Electronics Content Development Team Leader for Consumer Reports. “And smaller, no-frills, no-contract and prepaid service providers continue to do a better job of satisfying customers, and provide an increasingly viable alternative to some of the expensive, long-term contracts that many consumers find themselves locked into.”

The new Consumer Reports cell service ratings can be found online at and in the January 2014 issue of Consumer Reports, which hits newsstands next week.

Too much data

Sprint PCS  Nov. 21, 2013, 5:32 p.m.
Consumers rate Sprint PCS

The Consumer Reports survey also revealed that among the respondents who had data plans that set limits on usage, 38 percent used only half, or less, of their monthly allotment. As a result, many customers may well have overpaid for their wireless service. CR recommends seven ways consumers can cut their phone costs and save hundreds of dollars in the process. Among them:

  • Wait to buy that hot phone. Resist buying the latest must-have phone until a newer model comes out and you may be able to get it at a much lower price.  For example, if you bought the Samsung Galaxy S III from Sprint when it first came out, it would have set you back more than $200 up front. When the S 4 arrived, the S III price dropped to $100, and now it’s $0 with most service contracts.

  • Consider a prepaid service.  Pay-as-you-go plans used to come with limited service and bare-bones phones. Not anymore. Prepaid providers now have more smart phones, and some offer fast 4G connections. If you’re not a marathon talker, texter, or Web surfer, you’ll usually come out ahead by paying only for what you use.

  • Think twice about add-ons. Like other service providers, cellular carriers try to lard on extras, including navigation, insurance and GPS tracking of your children. Assess those offers carefully. You might be better off paying $1 per day for maps and directions only when you need them, rather than paying a $5 navigation fee every month.

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