Nowadays in the UK all four major mobile networks offer high quality 4G services, but this doesn’t automatically translate to having the best 4G experience. Each mobile provider offering 4G operates at varying internet speeds with different levels of coverage. Value is also an important factor that comes into play when assessing which mobile network to join. Networks are aware of this & offer unique perks & entertainment options to increase the value of their plans.
Regardless of subscribing to SIM only or pay as you go (PAYG) plans, customers prefer opting into a deal which will suit their budget.
In this guide, we primarily examine the four major mobile network providers in the UK which are EE, Vodafone, Three & O2. These four are the only ones with their own wireless network infrastructures, meaning they do not piggyback from anyone else, but offer their own services. The rest of the mobile networks you have heard of such as SMARTY, giffgaff, VOXI, Virgin Mobile etc. are all piggybacking off each of the larger networks. These types of mobile providers are also known as mobile virtual network operators (a.k.a. MVNOs). We will cover them as well, but very briefly. However, if you want to learn more about these operators Half Cooked has prepared extensive reviews which you can browse on our site. We’ve also compared a number of the UK networks such as SMARTY vs giffgaff, VOXI vs Vodafone, ID Mobile vs Sky Mobile and many others.
|Network||4G Population Coverage|
The mobile networks in the UK push their population coverage rate as a key selling point, but as the table above shows; they offer pretty much the same population coverage. When it comes to measuring network coverage, landmass is way more important and EE is in the lead with over 90% geographical coverage in the UK. The network plans to reach 95% landmass coverage by the end of 2020 as the UK’s new ESN (emergency services network) is being built on EE’s 4G network.
The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, recently revealed some details about the new Shared Rural Network (SRN), which by the end of 2025 aims to extend the UK’s geographic 4G coverage to 95%. All four major mobile networks are working together towards this goal, but even then, it looks like EE will have the most landmass coverage.
Half Cooked’s Verdict:
While population coverage is pretty much the same for all, EE is leading the more important metric, landmass coverage.
In terms of download & upload speeds, as well as network latency we rely on data coming from independent testing bodies such as OpenSignal, OOKLA and umlaut.
The table below shows the results for download and upload speeds & latency tests of the four leading 4G mobile networks carried out by OpenSignal, in April 2020. Network latency also means network delay. It is a network characteristic which indicates the duration of time at which data travels from one end point to another. Lower numbers mean better, faster data travel speed.
|Network||Download Speed (Mbps)||Upload Speed (Mbps)||Network Latency (ms)|
Currently, the most up to date test results are published by OpenSignal in April 2020. The internet speed test results indicate that EE is still the fastest 4G Network operator and the race isn’t even close. EE’s download and upload speeds are faster than Vodafone, Three and O2. The largest network in the UK also has the least network delay among the big four.
4G is a service now offered by all networks and it’s nothing new to advertise, but some mobile networks in the UK have upped their game with LTE-Advanced (dubbed as 4G+, LTE+), which can offer speeds at around 60Mbps to 90Mbps in locations with stronger network signals. All the major networks offer LTE-Advanced, but you should use their network coverage maps to check if your frequented areas are included or not.
Click on the image of the network to check their 4G Coverage:
Half Cooked’s Verdict:
EE is the clear winner here with the fastest download and upload speeds, as well as best network latency results. Vodafone follows EE, but not closely.
When it comes to using your mobile device as a personal hotspot, Three’s tethering tops all the other networks. The network is quite innovative in regards to offering the kind of value that their customers want, and to be able to tether data without any restrictions is definitely something that appeals to customers, especially if they are running an unlimited data plan. Whether you’re on a SIM only or PAYG plan, you will be able to tether as much mobile data as you want on Three.
It’s also possible to tether without any data restrictions on Vodafone’s unlimited data plans. There aren’t any limits to how many other devices can share your unlimited data with either. However, two out of the three Vodafone Unlimited plans come with speed restrictions. Unlimited Lite has a max speed of 2Mbps. This is a bit slow and could lead to an undesired performance for any extra device that is connected. Meanwhile the regular Unlimited plan also has a speed cap of 10Mbps.
EE and O2 allow their customers to tether on all their plans as well, but with some restrictions. On EE, you have a fair usage limit of 1,000GB (1TB) and O2’s data cap is even lower at 650GB. Both networks limit you to a number of 12 devices at most when tethering.
Half Cooked’s Verdict:
Three offers the best tethering service combined with the best value in the UK. Vodafone follows closely in terms of quality and freedom, but not when it comes to value.
4G Calling – VoLTE
4G Calling (also known as VoLTE) is a feature that allows you to make calls over a 4G network. This feature allows you to enjoy superior voice call clarity in virtually any area that you are in, that is of course if you are on a network which offers the service. All the major mobile networks in the UK provide 4G Calling. Three named this service as Super-Voice, but it’s the same feature with a fancy name.
Looking at the quality of the service, there seems to be little to compare between the four networks as they all have good population coverage, and are constantly improving on their voice quality services. However, to access 4G Calling both your price plan and your device must be compatible, and the list for compatible phones changes from network to network.
Three allows its customers to benefit from 4G Calling regardless of their price plans, while EE and O2 only allow pay monthly contracts. Vodafone limits the usage of this feature even more by excluding Vodafone Basics plans.
Out of the virtual operators only BT Mobile and ID Mobile support 4G Calling. Sadly, other mobile networks like SMARTY, VOXI, giffgaff, Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile etc. aren’t offering 4G Calling. SMARTY and giffgaff are working on ways to include 4G Calling in their price plans.
Half Cooked’s Verdict:
Though Three offers this feature to all its customers, EE edges the win due to having the best 4G network coverage in the UK.
Mobile Virtual Networks With 4G
Due to piggybacking off the major network providers all the MVNOs (mobile virtual networks) in the UK offer 4G. Plus their network coverage and internet speeds are always on par with who powers them, at least when it comes to 2G, 3G & 4G.
The table below shows the underlying coverage provider for some of the most popular MVNOs.
|MVMO||Actual Coverage Provider|
Half Cooked recommends these Virtual Networks:
|Powered by EE||Powered by Three||Powered by O2||Powered by Vodafone|
Mobile network providers not only want to retain their customers, they want to expand and bring in new ones. This makes them offer a lot of extras and interesting benefits with the intention of drawing in more customers. Even the mobile virtual networks, which only offer SIM only packages or PAYG deals have managed to stay competitive by offering some form of freebies. For example VOXI has their Endless Social Media perk, SMARTY offers money back on your unused data & giffgaff’s goodybags offer a unique type of flexibility.
EE customers get inclusive access to the BT Sport App & Amazon Prime Video, also to some other perks called ‘Swappable Benefits’. Unfortunately, these benefits are exclusive to EE Smart customers. If you are on an EE Essential plan, you’ll have to pay for them.
Three on the other hand offers Go Roam on all their packages, including PAYG deals. Three customers also may benefit from Go Binge, if they’re on a SIM only plan with 12GB and above data. Perhaps, the network’s best feature is providing 5G coverage to all customers at no extra cost.
Vodafone has a lot of great extras to offer customers, including a roaming deal with 81 countries in it. The network’s VeryMe Rewards are perhaps the best offer out of the four major networks. Vodafone members get discounted cinema tickets, free hot drinks, high street discounts, and other great deals with the VeryMe programme.
O2 offers customers get access to thousands of O2 Wi-Fi hotspots around the country, helping customers save data. The network operator also has one of the best loyalty schemes in the market with their O2 Priority app.
Half Cooked’s Verdict:
This section is a draw, other features that are important to consumers are individual. Money back on unused data from SMARTY might be a great feature for one individual but unlimited social media usage from VOXI may be important to another.
Half Cooked’s Overall Winner
EE gets the overall win for us here. With constant improvements to network coverage, increasing their landmass coverage to 95% and internet speeds that blow their competitors out the park, EE is the clear winner.
However, we believe Three offers the best value for money with true unlimited deals with no restrictions, inclusive perks for all customers and affordable extra perks. The network also offers 5G to all its customers at no extra cost.