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How Is AT&T – America's Worst-Ranked Cell Phone Carrier – Still Adding So Many Subscribers?

Steven Blum
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The results are in and they don't look so good for AT&T: the huge carrier has been rated last in terms of customer service for the second year in a row. The company received especially damning reviews for its lackluster voice service and phone-based customer service. Even worse, the company's 2011 rating is slightly lower than last year's. And yet, net revenue is up for AT&T, leading to a somewhat baffling contradiction: How can the lowest-ranked carrier in America actually be growing?

Consumer Reports subscribers don't like the bohemith carrier. The extensive survey by Consumer Reports polled 66,000 subscibers and found that consumers were happiest with small, regional carriers that offered prepaid plans – Consumer Cellular, U.S. Cellular and Credo received the top scores.Of the big carriers, Verizon took the top spot, followed by Sprint and T-Mobile.

AT&T's response to the poll has been that their proposed merger with T-Mobile will lead to greater customer satisfaction, although the chances of the merger actually going through are still in the air. The company has also gotten itself into hot water this year over allegedly rigging data charges so subscribers overpay on their monthly bills.

It makes sense that smaller, pre-paid carriers would receive the highest score. After all, their subscribers usually aren't using smartphones on their network, they're less likely to travel into areas with bad reception and – if they're prepaid – they don't need to argue with a salesperson over backing out of a contract.

But what I find especially damning is the fact that AT&T consistently scores badly in almost all polls, from JD Power to customer satisfaction in specific cities. AT&T doesn't take the number-one spot in any of Consumer Report's 22 listed U.S. cities and they have been accused of predatory data pricing. When a carrier can't provide adequate customer service, fails the coverage test in all major cities and introduces predatory pricing measures, how can they add 2.1 million subscibers in the third quarter alone? How can their net income go up (albeit slightly) in the last quarter?

Certainly the answer must have something to do with the fact that the carrier consistently gets its hands on the hottest, new smartphones before other carriers and offers them at deep discounts. They also have seriously deep pockets for big-budget advertising campaigns. AT&T has also sold over 3.8 million smartphones last quarter; sales of Android devices more than doubled over last year. Certainly, AT&T has been quick to board the Android train. Other than that, though, I'm stumped. Why do you think folks still subscribe to them? 

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