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How to pick the best mobile network for you

Which are the main networks in the UK? What's the difference between them? We look at how to pick the best mobile network for you

08 June 2017Andre Spiteri 5 min read

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Whether you’re a veteran network-switcher or the proud owner of your very first UK SIM, picking the right mobile network can seem daunting. All network providers say they have the best service. And they’ll all be willing to entice you with offers and perks.

With so much more to consider than just price, how do you pick the network provider that actually works for you?

In this article, we’ll explain the main differences between UK network providers and outline some of the factors to consider when coming to a decision.

Which network provider has the best coverage?

Coverage is probably the single most important factor when choosing a mobile network provider. You could have the greatest, most affordable plan in the world. But it would be pretty much pointless if you could never get any service. Right?

There are four main mobile network providers in the UK: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.

According to this coverage map developed by OpenSignal, EE currently has the best overall coverage in the UK, followed in order by Three, Vodafone and O2.

With that being said, the best overall coverage doesn’t necessarily mean the best coverage in your area. The strength and quality of your signal depends on two main factors:

1) how close you are to a network tower

2) whether the network tower is blocked somehow (for instance because trees or other structures are in the way)

The network provider with the best coverage in your area will be the one that has the largest number of unobstructed network towers close by. This means your best bet isn’t necessarily EE. It might well be O2 (or another network, for that matter).

You can check what the four network providers’ coverage looks like where you live using Ofcom’s mobile coverage checker.

Mobile networks vs virtual operators: what’s the difference?

While there are currently only four mobile network providers in the UK, there’s a growing number of virtual operators, also known as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators).

The main difference between an MVNO and a mobile network is that an MVNO doesn’t own its own network infrastructure (read, bases and network towers). Instead, it uses - or “piggybacks” - on the infrastructure of one of the four main networks. In other words, it rents out network space from another provider instead of building its own.

Here’s a list of MVNOs and the network they piggyback:

EE: ASDA Mobile, Axis Mobile, BT Mobile, Delight Mobile, Natterbox, The Phone Coop, Plusnet Mobile, Vectone Mobile, Virgin Mobile

Three: iD Mobile, Candy Telecom, Globalgig, The People’s Operator

Vodafone: Allpay Mobile, Cortel Telephone, Glemnet, Highnet, Lebara Mobile, Ownphone, Talk Mobile, TalkTalk Mobile, Zest4 Mobile

O2: Giffgaff, Lyca Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile

Why go for an MVNO?

MVNOs offer the same level and quality of coverage as the network provider they piggyback on, but they usually have cheaper packages and rates. This makes them especially great if you live in an area where only one or two network providers have decent coverage, because they widen your choice considerably.

With that being said, MVNOs do have some downsides, namely:

  • The benefits offered by the parent network (O2’s priority access to event tickets, for instance) don’t apply.

Of course, many MVNOs have their own benefit schemes. Tesco Mobile, for instance, gives you Clubcard points when you top up or pay your monthly contract bill.

  • Customer service may be hit or miss.

While some MVNOs have much better customer service than the main network providers, others are notoriously problematic.

Giffgaff don’t have a customer service number at all, which is why their plans are so cheap. Most issues are instead dealt with by volunteers on a community forum.

  • Crucially, coverage is only as good as the coverage of the network they run on.

In other words, if Three is spotty in your area, for instance, iD Mobile may be equally unreliable. Conversely, if Three’s signal is great, iD Mobile’s signal will most probably be just as great.

Which network provider has the best customer service?

If coverage is a major factor when picking a network, customer service is probably a close second. Whether you have an issue with poor service, trouble with your handset or are dealing with a billing mistake, you’ll want a friendly voice that’ll help you sort it out as quickly as possible.

As it turns out, Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, regularly publishes data on complaints. The latest report, published in December 2016, covers the period July to September 2016.

Tesco Mobile had the least number of complaints overall (1 complaint per 100,000 customers), followed by Three and O2. This goes to show that, while they lack brand recognition, the service offered by MVNOs can be just as good - if not better - as that of a major network provider.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vodafone ranked last with 20 complaints per 100,000 customers, followed by Talk Mobile and Virgin Mobile.

Of course, your coverage may vary, which is why it’s good to try out the service before committing to a long-term contract.

Picking the right plan

Mobile phone plans fall into two broad categories: contract plans and SIM-only plans. SIM-only plans are further subdivided into 12-month contracts, 30-day rolling contracts and pay-as-you-go.

Both categories have their advantages and disadvantages and which one you choose is largely a matter of personal preference.

Mobile contracts don’t usually distinguish between the cost of your monthly allowance and the cost of the handset, which can make it a bit trickier to compare plans from different networks. For the comparison to be like with like, you’ll need to make sure you select the same make and model of handset whenever you research a plan.

SIM-only contracts tend to be easier to compare, because there are less variables. Typically, you’re only looking at the size of the allowance and its monthly cost.

Measuring your usage

Whether you opt for a contract plan or a SIM-only deal, it’s a good idea to measure your actual usage before you commit. This ensures you’re happy with the size of your monthly allowance, as cutting a contract short may mean having to pay a hefty early termination penalty.

You can measure your usage in several ways.

Most networks have online customer portals and apps you can download with up-to-date usage stats. You can also check your usage directly from your phone’s settings or by downloading a third party app such as Data Usage (which is available for both iPhone and Android).

Add-ons and other perks

The size and cost of monthly allowances aside, all four major network operators (and many MVNOs) have unique selling points in the form of add-ons and other perks. Depending on your mobile usage and other preferences, these may make one network provider more appealing to you than another.

Here’s a rundown of the main perks offered by each major network provider:

  • EE

According to OpenSignal, EE has the fastest 4G speeds and best 4G coverage in the UK. They also offer a number of perks.

Contract phone subscribers currently get a 3-month BT Sport subscription for free, while pay-as-you-go customers get 500MB added to their allowance every three months for free. They also have WiFi calling, which allows you to make calls even when there’s no phone reception, provided you’re connected to a WiFi hotspot.

  • O2

O2 leads the way when it comes to perks. These include exclusive access to event tickets 48 hours before general release and up to 10% cashback on pay-as-you-go top-ups.

More to the point, O2 is currently the only major network that splits your pay monthly bill into the cost of the device and the cost of your allowance, which means you know exactly how much you’re paying for your contract phone.

  • Three

While they’re not very big on perks, Three have some of the cheapest rates on the market, and some of the largest data allowances around - great if you’re a heavy data user.

Some of Three’s plans also have a “feel-at-home” feature, which allows you to use your monthly bundle at no extra cost when you’re abroad.

  • Vodafone

Vodafone give customers a 7-day 250MB data boost whenever they give feedback on the quality of the service. They’ve also been named the best network for voice calls in independent testing conducted by P3 Connect.

Pay monthly and 12-month SIM-only deals also come with a free Now TV, Spotify or Sky Sports subscription.

Key highlights

  1. There are four major network providers in the UK: EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone.
  2. There are also a number of virtual operators (MVNOs). These rent network space from one of the major providers. They can offer the same quality of coverage, but at a cheaper price point.
  3. Price and coverage aren’t the only two factors to consider when choosing a network provider. Most networks have unique selling points and offer their customers additional perks such as free subscriptions and early bird tickets.
  4. According to the latest Ofcom data, Tesco Mobile currently ranks first for customer service.

Andre Spiteri Image

Written by Andre Spiteri

Financial Writer

Andre is a former lawyer turned award-winning finance writer.