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U.S. Cellular: Best regional cell phone carrier

While Verizon Wireless ranks highest overall nationally, reviewers say U.S. Cellular (Est. $50 per month and up) is a particularly strong carrier in the 26 states it serves, mostly in the Midwest. It boasts the best call quality in the North Central region for the 15th straight survey period conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. PCMag.com, where the company earns a Readers' Choice award, reports that U.S. Cellular's plans are better than its competitors' and it offers the best customer support in the business.

For those not interested in mobile Internet, U.S. Cellular offers a talk and text only plan (Est. $50 per month). With more minutes and a lower price, however, Verizon's similar offering looks like a better deal at first, but U.S. Cellular does not count incoming calls against your minute allotment. U.S. Cellular also offers a two-line family talk and text only plan (Est. $100 per month) with 1,000 minutes that might be a good fit for some. Both plans include unlimited texts.

The shared data plans are competitively priced: A plan with two smartphones and 4 GB of data costs about $150 per month, the same as from Verizon. Unlike the four major wireless carriers, U.S. Cellular doesn't offer an early phone-upgrade plan. However, customers can sign up for the Rewards program, earning loyalty points that lead to additional benefits that include earlier upgrade eligibility. U.S. Cellular does require a two-year commitment for all new contracts and offers subsidized phones, but customers not interested in a phone or plan upgrade can go month-to-month once a contract is completed.

One drawback to U.S. Cellular's service is that its phone selection isn't quite as broad as that of the larger national providers. However, it does have many of the most popular Android, Windows and iPhone smartphones. Like Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular operates on a CDMA network, so its phones won't work in other countries. Outside of its service area, roaming is on Verizon's network, so call quality should be first rate, but data while roaming is capped at 200 MB and LTE speeds are not available. A deal to sell some of U.S. Cellular's Midwest market to Sprint Nextel, including the cities of Chicago and St. Louis, closed this year.

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