4G coverage is important and tends to steal most of the headlines, but it’s far from the only factor for a smooth 4G experience. Reliability and speed are two important components as well and getting a grip on them isn’t always quite so easy. Especially speed, as the advertised speeds often won’t reflect real world use.
With that in mind we’ve created an overview of what to expect from each network right now, along with more detailed articles exploring each individual network in more depth, largely using the details from a RootMetrics Special Report.
EE is the 4G leader in the UK with an unmatched footprint of over 87% of the population, but that coverage doesn’t mean much if you’re in the remaining 13% and even in towns and cities which have an EE 4G signal there isn’t always comprehensive coverage.
As of the end of 2014 its largest footprint was in Belfast, where it had 92.9% coverage, leaving around 7% of the city without a 4G signal.
According to RootMetrics the average likelihood of accessing 4G across the 16 cities tested was 79.3%, though that figure could of course be far higher or lower in any given metro, since this is the average of all 16.
Its lowest 4G connection rate was 48.5% in Hull, but that’s an area which all the networks seem to struggle with.
EE’s reliability was found to be outstanding, with 15 out of the 16 markets able to make an initial connection in over 99% of tests.
Speeds were unsurprisingly impressive too, with EE delivering the highest maximum download speed of any network in the tests, reaching 94.1Mbps in Belfast. EE’s median download speeds were also the fastest in 15 of the 16 markets. In all then EE has the highest speeds and the greatest 4G coverage of any UK network.
More : EE 4G: Speeds and footprint
O2 is carrying out a rapid 4G roll out, in fact O2 reports that this is the fastest it’s rolled out any mobile network and its current UK population coverage stands at around 70%. That’s still a way behind EE but it’s gaining fast.
Its greatest footprint is in Edinburgh, where successful connections were made in 71.9% of tests, while it had a median 4G access rate of 52.7% across all 16 tested markets. That’s skewed slightly too as there were several markets where the network hadn’t yet rolled out 4G.
O2 was able to make an initial connection 98.4% of the time when 4G was available, so reliability is strong but marginally less so than EE’s.
Its speeds were a lot lower however, with its highest individual speed recorded as 64.7Mbps in London.
More : O2 4G: Speeds and footprint
RootMetrics tests found that the likelihood of accessing 4G on Three was relatively low wherever you were. Even in London, which had the network’s largest footprint, successful 4G connections were still only made 44% of the time, while across the 16 areas on test it had a median 4G access rate of just 24.8%.
Three’s 4G speeds were lower too, with its highest recorded speed coming in at 50.0Mbps in Sheffield and lower median speeds than its rivals too for the most part. In fact its highest median speed was just 14.2Mbps in Nottingham.
It’s not all bad news though as the network recorded very high reliability scores, with initial connection rates of near or above 99% in all markets where 4G was available and above 90% in all markets where it wasn’t.
It’s also worth noting that while its 4G footprint is relatively small, Three offers faster 3G speeds than its rivals, so if you can’t access 4G at least you’ll still be able to get reasonable speeds.
Plus like the other networks Threes coverage has grown since these tests were carried out, so expect its performance to have improved at least slightly too.
More : Three 4G: Speeds and footprint
Vodafone’s results are somewhat similar to O2’s, which is no surprise as the two networks share a lot of infrastructure, but their spectrum and signals are separate so there are still a lot of differences between them.
Vodafone’s largest 4G footprint is in Edinburgh, just like O2, but it was found to be marginally smaller at 71.2%.
Across the 16 markets on test Vodafone recorded a median 58.2% 4G rate, which is slightly better than O2’s but largely comparable.
Reliability was found to be high in 4G areas, with connection rates of near or above 99%, but they were less impressive where 4G wasn’t available, sitting at below 80% in six markets and only coming close to 95% in two markets.
Vodafone’s highest single speeds were recorded in both London and Belfast, where it achieved 64.5Mbps, but of course its average speeds were far lower. However they still always exceeded 10Mbps and often exceeded 15Mbps.
Vodafone’s rapid expansion puts it in a similar position to O2, with the two networks likely to soon become real rivals to EE.
More : Vodafone 4G: Speeds and footprint
You can click through to our in depth guides below for a more thorough look at each network, but when comparing them it’s clear to see that EE has the greatest speeds and coverage, but that O2 and Vodafone are quickly catching up on it, while Three trails behind but continues to offer great 3G speeds coupled with the best reliability of the bunch.
It’s also clear that none of the networks have anything close to total coverage. Even in cities where 4G is supposedly offered there are many occasions where you won’t be able to connect and speeds can vary massively between one city and another. In all of these things EE leads the pack, with a greater footprint and higher speeds overall, but there are certain cities where EE is bested by rivals.
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