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AT&T rated worst cell phone carrier for second year in a row

Carrier continues to have trouble with voice service, according to Consumer Reports' annual satisfaction survey. So who's the best? Consumer Cellular.

AT&T may be huge and generating boatloads of cash every quarter, but when it comes to service, the carrier has a lot of work to do.

For the second year in a row, AT&T was ranked last in Consumer Reports' annual customer satisfaction survey. The company was hit especially hard by complaints over poor voice service and phone-based customer care. Even worse for AT&T, the company's 2011 rating is slightly lower than last year's.

Consumer Reports' survey examines voice, data, and text-messaging service, as well as customer care. The specific ratings are available to subscribers.

So, who fared best? Believe it or not, it wasn't a big carrier. Consumer Reports found that Consumer Cellular--an MVNO that uses AT&T's network and focuses on senior citizens--topped the list this year. It was followed closely by regional carrier U.S. Cellular. Even Credo--an MVNO that uses Sprint's network and donates to progressive nonprofits--beat out the big four.

"Our survey indicates that subscribers to prepaid and smaller standard-service providers are happiest overall with their cell-phone service," Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports, said in a statement. "However, these carriers aren't for everyone. Some are only regional, and prepaid carriers tend to offer few or no smartphones."

For major carriers, Verizon Wireless took the top spot in Consumer Reports' study, earning high marks for texting and data service. Sprint and T-Mobile followed with slightly lower scores. Last year, Verizon also ended atop the Consumer Reports survey with Sprint and T-Mobile following closely behind. However, all three companies saw their scores drop this year, compared with last year's figures.

AT&T's customer service troubles aren't solely a Consumer Reports finding. In July, the carrier earned the lowest score of 751 in a J.D. Power and Associates customer care study. Verizon Wireless took the top spot with a score of 770.

However, AT&T continues to add new customers to its service, despite its apparent service problems. In the third quarter alone, AT&T added 2.1 million new subscribers bringing its total customer base to over 100 million.

Consumer Reports surveyed 66,000 online subscribers for this year's study. The organization's full findings will be available in the Consumer Reports magazine's January 2012 issue.

AT&T did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment on the Consumer Reports findings.