Choosing a smartphone or tablet is just the start. In this world of constant connectivity the quality and speed of your chosen network is critical to your ability to work and play on the move. But which mobile network is best? While there's no simple answer, we try our best to help you decide which network will work for you.
Connectivity can vary from locale to locale, and day to day. Visit the websites of all the major players and they will tell you that they have great coverage, everywhere. The truth is more nuanced.
Interestingly, according to StatCounter for the first time in October 2016 more people accessed the internet on a mobile phone or tablet than they did on a desktop or laptop PC. It recorded 51.2 percent mobile against 48.7 percent desktop, making it all the more important that you choose the best mobile network.
The bad news is that, as of April 2017, the UK's networks are increasing their rates as per the Retail Prices Index (RPI) rate of inflation. O2 is applying a 2.6% increase, EE is applying a 2.5% increase and Vodafone is yet to decide the percentage but has confirmed that it will be doing so for customers who upgraded or joined after 6 May 2016.
What's the best phone network in the UK?
Here we take a quick look at each operator and what they offer right now. We've listed them in alphabetical order.
BT is fairly new to the market, and uses its branded services on EE’s UK network. It’s a good option if you already have BT Broadband as you can apply for a £5 monthly discount on a contract with a handset.
It also offers SIM-only plans for pretty decent prices. As it’s on EE’s network (which itself is a combination of the old UK networks T-Mobile and Orange) you’re likely to get excellent coverage and good download speeds.
EE is becoming a bit of a behemoth in the UK mobile market. It was bought by BT last year, but that won’t really affect your choice of network. EE’s network is comprised of the old T-Mobile and Orange frequencies, so there’s a lot of coverage nationally, with few blackspots.
Its phone contract prices can be a tad pricey, but for sheer confidence in coverage (and a big brand name to boot) it’s a solid choice.
Owned by O2, Giffgaff is a little operator but one with attractive SIM-only deals. Using its owners network, it offers 2GB of data on plans from as little as £10 a month. It’s a fine choice if you already own a handset – just get a SIM and you’re good to go. However it does offer phones on a contract if you need both.
Giffgaff won consumer watchdog uSwitch’s Network of the Year 2016, so it’s clearly doing something right.
O2 is a brand that has been around since 2002 in the UK and has been owned by Telefonica since 2005. Recently rival operator Three attempted to merge with O2 but the European Commission opted to block the move (this was in the wake of the BT and EE sale).
Despite this, O2 is one of the most well-known operators around. Its prices are high compared to some competitors but coverage is excellent and its pay as you go range is one of the best in the country.
The newest addition to the UK mobile market, Sky has become a ‘quad-play’ provider by adding mobile to its TV, broadband and landline offerings.
Existing Sky customers get the best deals, with free calls and texts. You just pay for how much data you want, on a plan that uses O2’s network. Non-Sky customers can pay £10 extra per month for unlimited calls and texts. If you want to use Sky for everything, now you can.
Another user of O2’s big UK network, Tesco Mobile provides contracts, pay as you go and SIM-only deals at decent prices. Again, because it uses O2’s network coverage will be decent and often the subsidies for new handsets are good.
SIM-only prices can be under £10 per month, so if you’ve got a handset you already love it could save you a lot of money.
Three is unique in that it offers reasonably priced ‘all you can eat’ data bundles. That’s right, unlimited data. If you can afford it, you can get the best handsets in the land with unlimited Internet access.
Pay as you go rates are also pretty decent if you don’t need as much data, minutes or texts. Three unsuccessfully attempted to buy O2, and the fact it didn’t is good for the mobile market. More competition means better prices for you the consumer.
Virgin was late to the party with 4G, but has caught up and is an attractive option if you already get your broadband connection and TV from Virgin, cutting down the number of tech providers you gave to deal with.
Vodafone is a staple brand in the UK mobile market, and its coverage is excellent. We will say that in our own personal experience and also in the media recently it has suffered thanks to bad customer service. However, the actual network itself provides incredibly reliable fast 4G data connections and the SIM-only deals are well priced.
You may want to shop around if you feel that the contract prices are too high; they often are around the launch of a handset but if you can wait a few weeks they generally come down. You'll also like: Best SIM-only deals.
uSwitch Awards 2016
In February 2017, uSwitch unveiled the winners of its Mobile Awards 2016, voted for by more than 5,000 consumers and a judging panel of journalists.
Giffgaff was declared the best mobile network, with Tesco Mobile in second place and Three in third. Vodafone was the only one of the big UK mobile networks not to scoop a first-place award in any category.
Best Mobile Network of the Year
Best Pay Monthly Network
Best PAYG Network
Best SIM-only Network
Best for Roaming
Best Customer Experience
Best for Data
Best Network Coverage
Network Customer Service
Best Value Pay Monthly
Best Value SIM Only
Fastest Mobile Network powered by RootMetrics
Ofcom research 2016
On 31 March 2016, Ofcom published its research into the performance of the UK's big four networks: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The research was carried out between November and December of 2015 in five UK cities: Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and Norwich.
The research focused on two key metrics: download speed and web browsing performance.
Overall, EE came out on top when it comes to both web browsing speed and download speed, with an average page load speed of five seconds, a 98% successful loading rate, 20Mbit/s average download speed and 92% speeds over 2Mbit/s.
If you live in Norwich, however, Three managed to take the top spot as the fastest network there.
In addition to Ofcom's performance research, the organisation has also shared data on the volume of customer complaints it received against major mobile network providers.
Tesco Mobile has the least complaints per 100,000 customers, but it is likely to have the least customers too so it's tricky to make any solid conclusions from the report.
We can see, however, that complaints against Vodafone have shot up drastically since the middle of 2015, after customers reported incorrect billing.
Having said that, in April 2016 Vodafone introduced a unique 30-day network guarantee. This allows all new and upgrading customers 30 days to cancel their contract from the start date. This is good if you want to try how Vodafone is for coverage in your area.
This also applies to small businesses buying from Vodafone, and to all its bundles and devices. You can look for more information here.