Choosing a mobile network is a challenge. You may be tempted by the cheapest deal on offer, but there’s often a little voice in your mind saying, “There must be a reason why it’s so cheap!” Here we take a look at the UK networks and ask the thorny questions, “Which is the best?” and “Which is the worst?”
This isn’t going to be easy. Prices change from day to day. Coverage depends on where you live. But there are some factors that we can pin down for sure, and others that we can learn about if we ask a lot of people about their experiences with the various networks.
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Your mobile network is much more than just the people who have their name at the top of your smartphone display. In fact, your choice of mobile network can dictate how good your experience with your smartphone is - determining just how strong your signal and connection is at home, work or when you're on the move.
If your network doesn't live up to its promises, you could end up struggling to make and receive calls or texts on a day to day basis. Equally, you could have real issue browsing the web if you don't have a wireless connection to play with.
Basically, your network decides whether or not you can use your phone properly.
EE (Everything Everywhere)
This is the company formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, and you’ll be dealing directly with EE if you have a 4G contract on either Orange or T-Mobile.
One of the biggest operators in the UK, with over 18 million customers.
Orange & T-Mobile
These are now brands of EE, sharing the same network.
The newest of the big 4 networks and the only one to run a purely 3G service.
The longest-established network (the UK’s first mobile call was made on the Vodafone network back in 1985).
These “virtual operators” make use of one of the big 4 networks listed above for calls and data, but manage billing and customer services themselves.
This virtual network used to run on Vodafone, but has now switched to the EE network.
Using the O2 network, Giffgaff offers flexible plans and cheap prices. Customer service is provided by other customers through an online forum.
Promising a combination of Tesco value and O2 network reliability.
Part of the Virgin Media Group and using the T-Mobile network.
Let’s start with some facts. When it comes to 4G coverage, EE is the clear leader, with network coverage in hundreds of towns and cities already. EE covers the majority of the population already, with 4G regularly found through the service.
EE also offers good 2G and 3G coverage, built on the combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile.
O2 launched its 4G service in August 2013 in London, Leeds and Bradford with further cities now covered. O2 and Vodafone are now sharing network infrastructure to create one national grid across the UK. 99% of the UK population is covered.
Although Three was the first network to offer a 3G service in the UK, it’s been slow to embrace 4G. It’s quickly caught up with the rest of the pack though now, even offering free 4G services to existing customers. Three’s 3G coverage is excellent, with 98% coverage of the population. The company carries a huge amount of data on its 3G network – an astonishing 43% of the UK’s mobile data!
Vodafone launched 4G in London in August 2013 and has now rolled out coverage to many of the UK’s major cities. Vodafone owns the most 4G spectrum and uses the 800Mhz frequency which gives better coverage than EE’s higher frequency network. And by teaming up with O2, it can access O2’s network infrastructure too. Vodafone’s GSM 900/1800 network is one of the strongest in the country.
Each network on it's website has a coverage checker where you can check 2g, 3g and 4g coverage by your required postcodes.
Pricing is subject to change, but here’s a rough idea of how things currently stand:
|Mobile Phone Network||Calls- £/minute||Texts||Data/MB|
|Giffgaff||10p||6p||20p up to 20MB|
|Virgin Mobile||40p||15p||£1 up to 100MB|
Currently, for a free Samsung Galaxy S6, this is what you’ll pay on the different networks:
Virgin Mobile - £38 per month.
Three Mobile - £43 per month.
Tesco Mobile - £36 per month.
Vodafone - £36 per month.
O2 - £37.50 per month.
Orange & T-mobile - £38.49 per month.
EE - £38.49 per month.
Overall, pricing is quite confusing, but Asda Mobile and Giffgaff offer outstanding value on Pay as you Go. Tesco and Vodafone offer the cheapest Pay Monthly deals for cost-conscious consumers, and Virgin Mobile and Tesco Mobile have some attractive offers for specific handsets.
EE won the Mobile Choice Award for Best Network in 2015, mainly because of its 4G coverage. Three won the Mobile Industry Awards for Best High Street Retailer in 2015 thanks to its value-for-money in-store. O2 was ranked number one for customer satisfaction by Ofcom.
What do these awards prove? That choosing the best network isn’t simple! Let’s turn finally to what real people think of their networks.
S21.com, has been collecting reviews of the mobile networks since 2007. From over 3,000 user reviews we’ve built up a pretty clear picture of which networks perform the best, and what kinds of issues annoy people the most.
Ranked top, with a 4 star rating is O2. Users praise O2’s excellent customer care and helpful staff. Signal strength is another plus, but O2’s relatively high prices do come in for criticism.
Giffgaff also has positive reviews, with customers happy with the pricing and online support.
Asda Mobile comes in third, also with a 4 star rating, with low prices being the main attraction.
Vodafone gets a middling 3 stars. Users praise the reliability of the network, but moan about inept customer service, poor technical support and billing errors.
Further down the satisfaction list come EE, Orange & T-Mobile. The main problems here are signal quality, network reliability and unhelpful customer services.
Next comes Three, with a rather poor 2 star rating. Network coverage and customer services are again the main areas of dissatisfaction.
Right at the bottom we find the virtual networks Tesco and Virgin Mobile, with users complaining of poor customer service and unreliable networks.
No doubt the major networks and their MVNO partners will be on the back of the new technologies available in the future and 5G is just that. Superfast internet and stability is the key, but this may not arrive until around 2020.
Get more information on 5G mobile phones and how it can change our world of communications.
We aren’t going to say which network is best and which worst. That depends what you want personally. But we can make a few recommendations:
For overall reliability and good customer service, choose O2. O2 users benefit from the best all-round network reliability and coverage, with fair prices too.
For the best 4G network, choose EE. EE gives you 4G coverage in hundreds of towns and city centres. But it doesn’t come cheap, and outside population centres coverage is patchy and customer service is far from the best.
For cheap call costs, choose Asda Mobile or Giffgaff.
As for the worst network? You can probably work it out yourself from what’s been said.