How To Check & Compare UK Mobile Coverage: Networks & MVNOs
March 1st, 2016
Coverage should be your top consideration when choosing a new mobile network. Find out how to choose the mobile phone network offering the best coverage in your area.
If you’re choosing a new mobile phone network, the level and quality of coverage should be the most important thing to consider. You’ll need to have good mobile coverage to get a satisfactory experience when using your phone. Poor coverage can mean missed phone calls, text messages being delayed and web pages failing to load. Coverage will also affect the battery life of your handset (weak coverage will very quickly drain the battery life from your phone).
On the face of it, it can seem daunting to choose the network with the best coverage. This is because the UK has more than 20 mobile networks to choose from. In reality, things are much simpler than this, as many mobile networks share the same underlying coverage provider.
In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about mobile phone coverage in the UK. We’ll show you how to check and compare coverage on different networks. We’ll also discuss the UK’s system of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – understanding this will make it much easier to find the network with the best coverage. Finally, we’ll discuss the factors that can influence quality of coverage and what you can do to make sure you get the best coverage on your phone.
Check & Compare Mobile Coverage
In the UK, only four companies hold a license to build their own mobile network: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Each of the four companies has licensed some spectrum from the Government and they’ve each built their own network of mobile phone masts to cover the UK. The four companies maintain their own infrastructure and also sell mobile services directly to the consumer.
In addition to the four network providers, there are also a number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs for short). A MVNO doesn’t maintain their own network of masts: instead they lease spare capacity from one of the four network providers.
The result is that the mobile signal you receive from a MVNO will actually still be provided by one of the four coverage providers. For instance, BT Mobile uses the EE network, giffgaff uses the O2 network and iD Mobile uses the Three network. Although you might receive a BT, giffgaff or iD-branded service, the underlying coverage will still come from either EE, O2 or Three-owned masts.
It’s therefore hugely important to know which company provides the underlying signal for your mobile network. This will allow you to use the relevant online coverage checker and to easily compare the coverage with other networks (MVNOs with the same coverage provider will give you identical levels of coverage).
Table: UK Mobile Networks & Actual Network Providers
The table below provides a list of UK mobile networks. For each network, we’ve shown the actual network provider (this is the company that provides the underlying mobile signal). We’ve also shown the types of coverage available on each network (read on to find out more about the different types of coverage). For each network, we’ve also provided a link where you’re able to access the relevant online coverage map.
* At present, TalkTalk Mobile uses Vodafone as their network coverage provider. In November 2014, TalkTalk announced plans to change their network coverage provider to O2. No exact date has been given for the move to O2.
** At present, The People’s Operator uses EE as their network coverage provider. They’ve announced plans to change network coverage provider over to Three in Q1 2016.
The mobile networks highlighted in bold maintain their own network infrastructure. Mobile networks that aren’t in bold are considered to be MVNOs. MVNOs lease their capacity from the actual network provider listed in the table.
How To Assess Mobile Coverage
The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the relevant online coverage map applicable to your network. In the table above, select the relevant link to access the coverage map for the network you’re planning to join. You’ll normally be able to enter your postcode: this will take you directly to the results for where you live. It’s also worth checking the other places where you regularly spend time (e.g. at your school, university or workplace). You’ll ideally want to choose a network with good, reliable coverage at all of the places where you regularly spend time.
When checking the online coverage maps, there are two important things you should be looking out for. The first is indoor coverage: being able to use your phone when inside of a building. The second is the type of coverage you’ll receive: you’ll want 3G or 4G coverage for a good smartphone experience.
Indoor & Outdoor Coverage
If possible, choose a mobile network that offers you both indoor and outdoor coverage. This is vital if you want to use your phone inside of a building (e.g. in your home or in your office). If your mobile network has only outdoor coverage, you’re likely to get a poor smartphone experience. There’s also a high likelihood that incoming phone calls could be missed.
Note: Like all types of radio-based communication, mobile phone signals are weakened when passing through building materials. The strength of your indoor mobile signal will depend on building materials and also on the proximity of nearby buildings. In reality, your actual indoor coverage can differ from predictions given (e.g. when using your phone in a basement flat). If you aren’t able to get indoor coverage on any network, consider using one of the apps or accessories listed here.
Types of Coverage: 2G, 3G & 4G
When studying an online coverage map, you’ll normally be shown the levels of 2G, 3G and 4G coverage:
- 2G is the oldest type of mobile network still in use today. It’s mainly designed for calling and texting, but you can also browse the internet at dial-up speeds. If you’re just looking to call and text, 2G coverage should suffice for your needs. However, if you’re a smartphone owner, we would strongly recommend choosing a network with at least 3G or 4G coverage.
- 3G (recommended minimum) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It will allow you to call, text and browse the internet on your smartphone. A decent 3G connection should be fast enough for almost any activity on your smartphone (this includes online radio and video).
- 4G is the latest generation of mobile phone network. It has faster download speeds and provides a better online experience compared to 3G. Not all mobile networks will provide access to 4G (some lower-cost MVNOs are restricted to 3G). In our opinion, 4G coverage is a nice-to-have but most users will find 3G coverage sufficient for their needs.
Where possible, we strongly recommend choosing a mobile network with either 3G or 4G coverage.
Real World Experimentation
Finally, it’s worth noting that the data shown in online coverage maps is only a prediction. It gives the network provider’s expectation of your coverage, based on geography and where their masts are located. As discussed earlier in this article, the actual level of coverage may depend on other factors (e.g. the materials used to construct your home).
Before signing up to a 24-month contract, you may wish to carry out a real world experiment. For instance, you can ask your family members about their experience of a certain network provider. They don’t need to be a customer of the exact network you’re joining: they just need to be on a mobile network that shares the same underlying coverage provider. Is their mobile service reliable at home? Do they ever experience problems with coverage?
A further way to test this out is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the network you’re planning to join. You can place the SIM card into any unlocked smartphone and you can check to see whether the coverage is reliable. How many bars of signal are you able to get on the phone? If you like, you can test the level of coverage once for each network provider (this will allow you to easily compare the coverage on different providers).
Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK
EE (99% coverage)
EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. Now a part of the BT Group, EE offers high-speed 4G coverage through the BT Mobile and EE brands. EE also provides the underlying coverage for multiple MVNOs which have access to their 2G and 3G network:
As of February 2016, EE has 95% population coverage for 4G internet. This is the widest 4G coverage of any UK network. Double-speed 4G coverage currently stands at 80% with 4G+ coverage (LTE-Advanced) available to customers in London.
If you’re looking for a deal with EE coverage, see our guide to the best value SIM cards with coverage from EE.
2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
O2 (99% coverage)
As well as providing their own O2-branded service, O2 also provides the underlying coverage for the following brands:
All of O2’s MVNOs have access to 4G. As of November 2015, O2 has 78% population coverage on 4G.
2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
Three (97% coverage)
Three is the UK’s newest network coverage provider and claims 97% population coverage on 3G and 4G. It’s worth noting that Three doesn’t have any 2G coverage on which to fall back upon (for this reason, it’s not possible to use a 2G-only handset on Three or on Three’s MVNOs).
The following MVNOs are currently using Three as their network coverage provider:
As of April 2015, Three has 60% population coverage on 4G. Some but not all of Three’s MVNOs have access to their 4G network.
2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
Vodafone (98% coverage)
Vodafone currently provides the underlying coverage for the following brands:
At present, 4G is only available on the Vodafone-branded service. Vodafone’s MVNOs are restricted to having only 2G and 3G coverage. As of February 2016, Vodafone has 86% population coverage on 4G.
2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
Apps & Accessories for Better Indoor Coverage
We strongly recommend following the instructions above in order to find the mobile network that offers the best coverage in your area. In some cases, this won’t be possible (e.g. if you’re tied in to a 24-month contract or if there are no mobile networks offering coverage in your area). In this case, you might be able to use a smartphone application or a special accessory to improve your coverage at home:
- EE: On EE, it might be possible to use their wi-fi calling service (this will require you to have a compatible handset with the service). An EE signal box may also be available to customers who lack a smartphone with Wi-Fi Calling support.
- O2: On O2, you can download the TU Go application to make and receive phone calls over a wi-fi connection.
- Three: Customers on Three can use the inTouch application to make and receive phone calls on a wi-fi connection. Alternatively, it may also be possible to get a Sure Signal box.
- Vodafone: Vodafone has a wi-fi calling service for compatible smartphones. For anyone using another handset, it may be possible to get a Vodafone Sure Signal.
Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) lease spare capacity from a mobile network provider.
The UK has four network providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The network provider manages all of the fixed network infrastructure (including the required licenses, the mobile masts and the network of backhaul connections).
MVNOs such as BT Mobile, giffgaff and iD Mobile provide a service on top of the network provider’s infrastructure. The underlying coverage will come from the network provider, but things like billing and customer support will be handled by the MVNO.
In some cases, MVNOs are either owned or partly-owned by the underlying network provider. This is a technique for targeting different groups of customers. For instance, giffgaff is a fully-owned subsidiary of O2. Compared to the main O2 brand, giffgaff is targeted towards younger and more price-conscious consumers. Lower prices can be offered on this sub-brand without cannibalising the revenues made on the core O2 brand.
Armed with this knowledge, savvy consumers can often save money by switching over to a low-cost MVNO. You’ll often receive the same exact coverage at a vastly reduced cost through MVNOs.
The information in the table above shows the current line-up of UK virtual network operators. In the past few years, certain MVNOs have changed the network they lease spare capacity from. This has led to changes in the coverage they offer.
- ASDA Mobile. In October 2013, ASDA Mobile switched to using the EE network. Prior to this, ASDA Mobile operated on the Vodafone network.
- BT Mobile. The BT Mobile service launched to consumers using EE’s mobile network in March 2015. Prior to this, BT had a business-only mobile service which operated on Vodafone until summer 2014.
- Family Mobile. Family Mobile (originally from IKEA and then from Coms Mobile) previously used coverage from EE. The service closed in August 2015.
- Lycamobile. In 2010, Lycamobile switched to using the O2 network. Prior to this, Lycamobile used the Orange network.
- Orange & T-Mobile. In October 2011, Orange and T-Mobile combined their network operations. They created a new single combined network under the EE brand. The combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile have now become the 3G network of EE. In addition, EE has launched a 4G network but this wasn’t made available to customers on Orange or T-Mobile. As of February 2015, it’s no longer possible to take a new plan on Orange or T-Mobile.
- OVIVO Mobile. OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service closed on March 19th 2014.
- TalkTalk. In November 2014, TalkTalk signed an agreement to change their network coverage provider from Vodafone to O2. At present, customers are still yet to be switched over to using coverage from O2. Hence, customers on TalkTalk currently continue to receive coverage from the Vodafone network. It’s expected that customers will be moved over to O2’s network in 2016.
- The People’s Operator. The People’s Operator has used coverage from EE since its launch in November 2012. They’ve announced plans to change network coverage provider from EE to Three in Q1 2016. 4G will be made available to customers as part of the transition.
- Sky. In 2016, Sky is due to launch a MVNO using coverage from O2.
I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.
Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.