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Best Mobile Network

6th September 2021

There’s a lot to consider when picking a mobile network - coverage, speed, value and more besides, and none of it really matters if you don’t get a signal where you live or work.

So before jumping in with a network it’s best to weigh up all the pros and cons, and we’ve just made that a whole lot easier by laying them out for you, highlighting which is the best network across a number of categories.

Table of Contents

Network Coverage

Network Coverage

Network

4G Coverage

5G Coverage

EE

Check Coverage

>99%

162 towns and cities

Three

Check Coverage

99.8%

300+ towns and cities

O2

Check Coverage

99%

194 towns and cities

Vodafone

Check Coverage

99%

124 towns and cities

For a long time EE was well in the lead when it came to 4G coverage, but as you can see in the chart above all of the networks now have almost complete 4G population coverage.

It’s hard to say for sure which networks are doing best here, as they don’t update their figures at the same time, so some will be more dated than others, but the good news is that whatever network you’re on there should be widespread 4G coverage.

However, we suspect that EE still has the greatest coverage overall, since it’s unlikely that it will have totally lost its lead. Its population coverage may be similar to rivals but its geographic coverage is probably greater.

5G is even trickier to judge, and networks are constantly improving their 5G coverage, but at the time of writing Three has it in more towns and cities than rivals.

That said, it may not necessarily have as much coverage in those places, so don’t just go by the location numbers. For example, EE was the first to launch 5G too, so it has a head-start on rivals and may well offer better coverage in some of the places where its 5G is available, but that’s just speculation.

All of this suggests either EE or Three is in the lead, but it’s hard to say for sure.

  • Winner: EE and Three

Network Speeds

Standard 4G is around five times faster than 3G and all the networks offer that, but some go above and beyond with faster services such as LTE-A, and that’s before we get to 5G, which we’ll also look at.

In most tests, including ones by OpenSignal and Speedtest, EE has been found to have the highest average 4G speeds in cities UK-wide. That’s not really surprising, especially when you consider that it offers 90Mbps LTE-Advanced (marketed as 4G+) in many locations.

OpenSignal – Mobile Networks Update, October 2020 (download) and April 2020 (latency)

Network

4G download speeds (Mbps)

4G latency (ms)

EE

36.4

36.0

Three

22.2

48.3

Vodafone

22.4

39.0

O2

18.2

38.1

Vodafone and Three also offer LTE-A / 4G+ services, but as with EE they’re not available everywhere (they’re mostly found in major cities), and as the chart above shows, these networks' overall 4G speeds aren’t a match for EE’s, while O2’s trail far behind.

EE also leads for latency (the time it takes for a network to respond to a request), though O2 and Vodafone are close there, with Three trailing.

Of course, the networks are also rapidly growing their 5G services, though these aren’t available everywhere at the time of writing, and coverage is changing rapidly. There’s a growing amount of data on 5G speeds, with some of the key findings listed in the chart below.

5G Network Speeds

EE

Three

Vodafone

O2

Average 5G speed of 149.9Mbps

(Point Topic)

Average 5G speed of 158.7Mbps

(Point Topic)

Average 5G speed of 143.6Mbps

(Point Topic)

Average 5G speed of 115.7Mbps

(Point Topic)

Median 5G speed of 151Mbps

 (Ookla)

Median 5G speed of 231Mbps

 (Ookla)

Median 5G speed of 159Mbps

 (Ookla)

Median 5G speed of 155Mbps

 (Ookla)

Max 5G speed of 753Mbps (Point Topic)

Max 5G speed of 478.1Mbps

(RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 545.6Mbps

 (RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 302.1Mbps

 (RootMetrics)

It’s hard to directly compare the 5G speeds of each network as they haven’t all undergone the same tests, but the chart above – which uses various sources and refers to download speeds - gives some insight.

Key takeaways are that EE’s top speeds may be the highest, with Three potentially having the highest average and median speed, while Vodafone and O2 also both perform reasonably well in both cases.

Ultimately all the networks are fast, but right now EE looks to be the best network for speed on 4G, and potentially tops out highest on 5G.

  • Winner: EE

Data limits

UK Networks Maximum Data Allowances

Network

Max data

Roaming

Three

Unlimited

12GB

Vodafone

Unlimited

25GB

O2

Unlimited

25GB

EE

Unlimited

50GB

For a long time Three was the clear winner in this category, as it was the only major UK network to offer unlimited data. Now though, its rivals have all started matching it. Most of them also are around the same level for roaming limits.

You should also be aware that some of the networks have fair usage limits even in the UK. On EE for example you can only use up to 600GB of data per month, and mustn’t tether more than 11 devices simultaneously. O2 is similar, but allows up to 650GB of data use. Vodafone doesn’t have these restrictions, but some of its unlimited plans do have speed caps. Three is the only one that’s really restriction-free in the UK, but it allows the least data when roaming.

EE meanwhile has a slight edge for roaming limits, and therefore we’re calling this a tie between EE and Three.

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  • Winner: EE and Three

​Roaming

UK Networks Roaming Destinations

Network

Free roaming regions on all plans

Free roaming regions on select plans

EE

48

53

Three

71

71

Vodafone

51

83

O2

48

75

The data limits while roaming have been covered above – and give EE the edge, but what about where you can roam for free in the first place?

Well, that’s a bit complicated, because some of these networks will soon be changing their roaming terms in response to Brexit, but haven’t done yet at the time of writing. The chart above reflects the current situation (as of September 2021) and that’s what we’ll cover first, but further down we’ll look at how things are going to change.

At the time of writing then, EE actually comes last for free roaming, offering 48 European destinations as standard, while adding in the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand (for 53 total) if you opt for a Roam Abroad pass on a plan with Smart Benefits, or pay £10.44 per month.

Three meanwhile keeps things simple, offering 71 roaming locations as standard on all of its current compatible plans. That’s the highest base number offered by any of these networks, and it includes places in Europe and beyond. However, no plans come with more than that – though you can pay for an add-on to further boost the number.

Then there’s Vodafone, which offers a middling 51 European locations for free roaming on all plans. However, some of the network’s plans up that number to 83 and take it worldwide. That’s the highest number of places that any of these networks allows you to roam for free in at the time of writing. Vodafone also allows 5G roaming in numerous European towns and cities across Germany, Italy, Spain, and Ireland, which is something rivals don’t offer.

Finally, O2 matches EE for the number of free roaming locations offered as standard at 48, but select plans add 27 global locations to that, for 75 in total.

That’s how things stand at the time of writing then, but from January 2022, EE will charge customers £2 per day to access their allowances in previously free roaming locations – unless they have a Roam Abroad pass. This will apply to any new and upgrading customers who take an EE plan from July 7.

Vodafone similarly will charge between £1-£2 per day to roam from January 2022 (with the lower price being available if you buy an eight-day or 15-day roaming pass). However, this only applies to new and upgrading customers, and those on Xtra plans won’t have to pay.

Changes on Three and O2 have already happened but are much smaller, just lowering the free roaming data limits to 12GB and 25GB respectively. So from 2022 these will be the only two networks of the big four to offer truly free roaming on all plans.

Ultimately then, as things stand now we’d say this one is a tie between Three, which gives you loads of roaming locations whatever plan you choose, and Vodafone, which tops out at the most and offers 5G roaming. But we can’t ignore the changes that are coming soon to Vodafone’s roaming provision, and with that in mind we have to give Three the win.

Though of course, what matters most is whether a network lets you roam for free in the places you actually care about, so Three won’t necessarily be the best for everyone.

  • Winner: Three

Tethering

Network Tethering Allowances

Network

Pay Monthly

SIM Only

Pay As You Go

Three

Unlimited

Unlimited

Unlimited

Vodafone

Unlimited

Unlimited

Unlimited

O2

650GB

650GB

100GB

EE

600GB

600GB

60GB

Three and Vodafone are the only major UK networks to offer unlimited data for tethering on all plan types.

O2 and EE meanwhile have fair use policies for tethering with unlimited data, though at 650GB and 600GB respectively they’re unlikely to be an issue.

  • Winner: Three and Vodafone

Business

All of the major UK mobile networks have business tariffs and services and they all come with extra features to help them stand out.

For example, Three gives you a price promise that will see it beat major competitors by at least £1 per month, with EE you can get a dedicated account manager (if you have ten or more connections), and a free Square card reader, Vodafone offers virtual landlines and business applications, and O2 puts a focus on data rollover and flexible tariffs.

These networks also support businesses of most sizes, so it largely comes down to personal preference as to which is best.

So this category is close. Ultimately though EE and Three edge the win as the best networks for business use due to their coverage, which we’ve rated elsewhere but which is even more vital for business users, who rely on 4G and 5G to work wherever they are.

  • Winner: EE and Three

Added extras

Each of the networks has its own ways to try and draw in customers and some rely heavily on extras above and beyond your phone contract. Vodafone has some of the most appealing extras, with Spotify Premium, Amazon Prime or YouTube Premium subscriptions included on a variety of its plans.

Given that many people have and can make use of music and TV subscriptions, at least one of those is bound to be a great extra for almost anyone.

EE meanwhile gives you access on some plans to ‘Smart Benefits’, which let you choose one or more benefits from a selection including EE’s Roam Abroad service, a Video Data Pass, Netflix, Apple Music, Apple TV Plus, Apple Arcade, and BT Sport Ultimate. The exact selection varies depending on the plan you choose.

O2’s extras include various exclusive deals, offers and early ticket sales through O2 Priority, as well as automatic access to 7,000 of its over 16,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK.

All of these networks (other than Three, which is currently light on extras) offer some nice extras then, but – due to its extras lasting the life of the contract and being high-value - we’d give Vodafone and EE the edge.

  • Winner: Vodafone and EE

​Conclusion

There you have it then. EE wins or ties for the win in the coverage, speed, data limits, business, and extras categories, meaning it has five wins and ties with Three for first place, as Three has wins or ties for coverage, data limits, roaming, tethering, and business

Vodafone meanwhile as well as tying with EE for extras ties with Three for tethering, giving it two wins, while O2 comes out with no wins. However, in most categories the networks are all close and in some cases the winner is very subjective, so it’s worth making your own decision.

It’s also worth considering the many MVNOs which share their infrastructure. For more on that check out the following guides:

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