T-Mobile, Sprint struggle with 2% network-coverage 'perception' scores, according to NPD survey

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) maintains a dominating lead among Tier 1 wireless operators in terms of wireless users' perception of its network coverage, according to a survey from research firm NPD. The firm found that Verizon's "Carrier Perception Score" for network coverage is 30 percent, above rival AT&T Mobility's (NYSE: T) score of 10 percent and far above Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), which both recorded perception scores of just 2 percent.

NPD's findings, which stem from a December survey of 2,500 wireless customers, are essentially the average of what non-customers think about each of the nation's carriers and their network coverage. For example, 24 percent of AT&T customers, 37 percent of Sprint customers and 29 percent of T-Mobile customers picked Verizon Wireless as the carrier that provides the nation's best network coverage, so Verizon Wireless' "perception" score is 30 percent, which is the average of the three figures.

NPD's research offers a look at how everyday wireless customers view the network coverage of the nation's four nationwide wireless-network operators. Such findings are important, considering that wireless operators have spent billions of dollars on advertising and marketing messages aimed at improving customers' perception of their respective networks and services. For example, Verizon has long made its network a central theme of its messaging--most Americans can readily recall the carrier's long-running "can you hear me now" advertising campaign, which trumpeted the breadth of Verizon's network. Today, Verizon continues to advertise its network as "America's largest and most reliable 4G LTE network."

But Verizon's rivals continue to work to chip away at the carrier's network message. AT&T boasts that its network is the most reliable, and it advertises that it covers 99 percent of all Americans. T-Mobile too is working to improve wireless users' perception of its network: The carrier recently began advertising that it covers 96 percent of all Americans. And just last week, T-Mobile announced an iPhone-test-drive program designed to allow customers test out its network free for a week. On its website, the carrier said: "The T-Mobile network has never been stronger, but don't take our word for it. Try out our network for free for 7 days on an iPhone 5s. Stream, text, download, make calls--and take the network built for speed for a spin."

Thus, the findings from NPD offer a clear insight into why T-Mobile is working so hard to change customers' perception of its network. According to NPD's findings, around 52 percent of T-Mobile's own customers think that T-Mobile has the nation's best network coverage. But just 3 percent of AT&T customers think that T-Mobile offers the best network coverage. Around 3 percent of Sprint customers think that T-Mobile offers the nation's best network coverage, and just 2 percent of Verizon Wireless customers think that T-Mobile has the best network coverage.

"While we do not expect to see a major shift in trend, T-Mobile will likely score higher in Network Coverage score this round," noted NPD analyst Brad Akyuz. He said NPD's next round of surveys should be released later this month.

Indeed, T-Mobile recently issued a cease-and-desist letter to Verizon about Verizon's LTE-network advertising. T-Mobile said Verizon's recent ads insinuated that Verizon's network is dramatically bigger than T-Mobile's. T-Mobile said that Verizon "has cherry-picked a single network technology to depict in its ads rather than accurately reflecting the many technologies widely in use today."

In response, Verizon issued a statement: "We prefer to compete in the marketplace, not in the courts. Our customers know what a true nationwide 4G LTE network experience feels like, map or not."

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