Cingular: Cingular's purchase of AT&T should be good for both customer bases. In areas where AT&T worked great (such as the food court in the Wheaton Mall), the Cingular phone could barely eke out a signal; in other spots, such as Clarksburg, Cingular provided a better connection. Combining the two networks would make them difficult to beat -- but first Cingular has to make its way through a mammoth merger.
Nextel: Nextel continued its unlikely streak, delivering perfect coverage at each location for the second year in a row -- even with a change of test locations. Nextel's service, however, remains on the pricey side, and if you stray from its network, there's no roaming option.
Sprint: Sprint performed well in this year's roundup, thanks to improved performance in the Maryland suburbs (in Gaithersburg alone, the company says it has added four transmission towers this year). This is a solid choice throughout the metropolitan area.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile, last year's weakest performer, closed the gap a bit this year. We did find areas where the signal was dramatically weaker than other carriers, but fewer than a year ago; this is real progress. If your own calls don't extend to rural areas and you find that T-Mobile's plans meet your use better than those of competitors, you might find that occasional static or dropouts are acceptable tradeoffs.
Verizon: Verizon's almost-perfect coverage earned it a close second to Nextel; we heard minor scratchiness during some calls and ran into one outright ugly spot in the Sterling area. The network outages we found last year were apparently just that.
-- John Breeden II