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Best Mobile Network

23rd November 2020

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%

112 towns and cities

Three

Check Coverage

99.8%

68 towns and cities

O2

Check Coverage

99%

108 towns and cities

Vodafone

Check Coverage

99%

57 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.

EE also likely has a lead when it comes to 5G coverage. This is even trickier to judge and networks are constantly improving their 5G coverage, but EE was the first UK network to launch 5G and at the time of writing it has coverage in parts of 112 towns and cities.

That’s more than any other network, with O2 coming second with coverage in parts of 108 towns and cities, then Three in parts of 68, and finally Vodafone in parts of 57 – though Vodafone also allows 5G roaming, more on which below.

All of this suggests EE is in the lead, but it’s hard to say for sure, since the number of locations isn’t all that matters – it also depends on the size and how well covered with 5G they are.

  • Winner: EE

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 speeds in cities UK-wide. That’s not really surprising, especially when you consider that all its 4G plans top out at a minimum of 60Mbps (which used to be labelled as double-speed) and that it even offers 90Mbps LTE-Advanced (marketed as 4G+) in some cities.

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 starting to launch 5G services, though these aren’t widely available either at the time of writing and coverage is changing rapidly. There isn’t a huge amount of data about 5G speeds yet either, but across all networks they’re likely to average around 100-200Mbps, with peak speeds potentially exceeding 1Gbps. The chart below details some of the key 5G data we do have.

5G Network Speeds

EE

Three

Vodafone

O2

Average UK 5G speed of 149.8Mbps

(Opensignal)

Median 5G speed of 133.8Mbps

in London  (RootMetrics)

Average UK 5G speed of 122.1Mbps

(Opensignal)

Average UK 5G speed of 159.48Mbps

(Ookla)

Median 5G speed of 138.1Mbps

in London (RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 463Mbps

in London (RootMetrics)

Median 5G speed of 181.8Mbps

in London (RootMetrics)

Median 5G speed of 121.3Mbps

in Belfast (RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 388.4Mbps

in London (RootMetrics)

Max overall 5G speed of 478.1Mbps

(RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 402.2Mbps

in London (RootMetrics)

Max 5G speed of 146.4Mbps

in London (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 Three’s top speeds may be the highest, with O2 potentially having the highest average speed, while EE and Vodafone come close in both cases.

Ultimately all the networks are fast, but right now - thanks to its 4G speed and 5G coverage advantage - EE is the best network for speed.

  • Winner: EE

Data limits

UK Networks Maximum Data Allowances

Network

Max data

Roaming

Three

Unlimited

20GB

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.

However, EE has a slight edge there, and for that reason alone it’s our winner here – just be aware that its unlimited data plans are often on the pricey side.

It’s also worth noting that while O2 has a fair use limit of 25GB when roaming on an unlimited data plan, that limit doesn’t seem to apply on other plans – which can reach up to 250GB. The same appears to be true on Vodafone, but that network otherwise tops out at 100GB at the time of writing.

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  • Winner: EE

​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

81

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?

For that, EE actually comes last, 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 Further pass on a plan with Smart Benefits, or pay £10 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, many of the network’s plans include ‘Global Roaming Plus’, which ups that number to 81 and takes 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 193 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.

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

  • Winners: Three and Vodafone

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

100GB

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 free subscriptions to WeWork, Wix and FreshBooks, with EE you can get a dedicated account manager, and O2 puts a focus on collaboration tools.

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 edges the win as the best network for business use due to its 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

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 Further service, a Video Data Pass, Amazon Prime Video, BritBox, Apple Music and BT Sport, if you have an Android phone, or Apple Music, Apple TV Plus, Apple Arcade, BT Sport, Roam Further, and a Video Data Pass on iPhone.

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 the coverage, speed, data limits, business, and extras categories (the last of which it tied with Vodafone for) meaning the most wins overall.

Vodafone meanwhile as well as tying with EE for extras ties with Three for tethering and roaming, giving it three wins, while Three just has those two ties, and 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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