From the December 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

How's your cell phone service lately? A recent survey of tens of thousands of callers by renowned consumer satisfaction researcher J.D. Power and Associates says people are using their cell phones more and liking them better. Really?

Yes, that may surprise you-the improvement wasn't earth-shattering, says Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services for J.D. Power and Associates in Norwalk, Connecticut. But, in the aggregate, cell phone users report being happier with call quality and coverage, plan options, prices and customer service. It's the first time in many years that the industry has brought home a good report card, notes Parsons.

Carriers have benefited from a slowdown in helter-skelter network build-outs and regulatory brouhaha, as well as an upswing in calling minutes and customers. These factors have let them reinvest more dollars in network improvements. Callers, meanwhile, have benefited from having more carriers in almost every geographic region.

"It's encouraging to see that industrywide network improvements, especially in expanded coverage and aggressive service plan options, have lowered the average reported per-minute cost to 14 cents," says Parsons.

Coincidentally, the FCC also gave carriers an "attaboy" recently, attributing service improvements to "competitive pressures [that] continue to compel carriers to introduce innovative pricing plans and service offerings."

Not every industry observer is quite so sanguine about the industry's good intentions. "The slight improvement you've seen recently in customer service from cell phone companies is long overdue and prompted by regulatory, legislative and legal actions," concludes Janee Briesemeister, senior policy analyst for the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, in Austin, Texas.

However we got here, the question is, Can they keep it up? Parsons isn't willing to make a prediction until he sees two good years in a row. It's not only up to carriers, he says. The irony of measuring customer satisfaction is that the better carriers do, the more customers come to expect.

The current balance between performance and expectations isn't guaranteed to continue. One happy surprise, though, is that the greatest improvements this year came in call quality, a direct reflection of investments in existing networks.

Carrier performance in this and other areas will vary across geographic regions, though. For specific details on how each provider performs in your region of interest, visit JD Power and Associates.