Published in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 2004
BY TAMMY CHASE Business Reporter
Searching for a good wireless phone company?
According to the February issue of Consumer Reports magazine, New York-based Verizon may be your best bet. In its annual survey, the magazine said Verizon had the "highest levels of customer satisfaction."
There's a new twist to the competition among wireless carriers: Phone customers have been able to take their numbers to new carriers since November, which has increased competition and improved the type of cell phone packages customers can choose, the editors of Consumer Reports told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
But, the editors said, customers face problems transporting those numbers, and complaints abound over billing and the inability to get service. One editor said he could get service in certain blocks of Manhattan but not others, for example.
"Cell phone companies have to pay attention to their customers," said David Heim, the magazine's deputy editor. "Unfortunately, wireless companies are focused on (increasing) their market share."
They're doing so with lots of plans. Consumer Reports said it was a good time to switch carriers if your contract is near expiration.
In Chicago, Verizon ranked the best, as it did in all but one of a dozen cities. It was followed in Chicago by Nextel, Cingular, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint PCS.
The survey did not include Chicago-based U.S. Cellular Corp. because Consumer Reports only reported the results for companies for which it received at least 150 responses in each of 12 cities. Verizon topped last year's ranking, which was the first time Consumer Reports rated carriers as part of its long-running annual wireless survey.
Verizon and Nextel had the lowest turnover rates, according to Consumer Reports' survey of 31,000 subscribers who participated in the magazine's survey last September, at 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Sprint PCS had the highest at 35 percent. Verizon had "fewer problems with service availability and overloaded circuits," the report said.
Verizon and Nextel also fared well in a separate survey by J.D. Powers and Associates released in September, based on plan options and prices, brand image and billing.
"Verizon gets one out of three customers," said Greg Gorbatenko, a telecommunications analyst with When2Trade. "That 'Can you hear me now' guy is a marketing machine."
In comments about the wireless industry in general, Consumer Reports editors said they have received many complaints from consumers who have had delays in switching their services -- some people said they have been forced to carry two phones and received two bills while trying to switch.
Others have been told by their phone company that they must buy a new phone to be able to transport their number, a practice the magazine calls unfair. The Consumers Union, the watchdog group that publishes Consumer Reports, said it will lobby the Federal Communications Commission to better enforce rules regarding number portability, as it's called.
It will also call on the FCC to better police service issues and what it said is an inconsistent ability for cell phone customers to reach a 911 operator in an emergency.
Consumer Reports said customers who are frustrated can visit the Consumers Union Web site www.escapecellhell.org and file a complaint that will be sent to the FCC.
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