How To Check & Compare UK Mobile Coverage: Networks & MVNOs

October 25th, 2013

Mobile coverage should be your top consideration when choosing a mobile phone network. Find out how to choose the network offering the best coverage.

Mobile phone coverage is provided by mastsIf you’re choosing a mobile phone network, the level of coverage should be the most important thing to consider. You’ll need to have good mobile coverage in order to get a satisfactory experience from your phone. Poor coverage can lead to missed phone calls, text messages being delayed and web pages failing to load. It can also affect your phone’s battery life adversely: poor mobile coverage will very quickly drain battery life from your smartphone.

With the UK having more than 20 mobile networks, it seems rather daunting to choose the network with the best coverage. In this guide, we outline the basics of how to check and compare mobile coverage in the UK. We’ll discuss the UK’s system of virtual network operators: understanding this will save you vast amounts of time when comparing mobile coverage. We’ll also outline how you’re able to assess the quality of coverage: the things you should look out for and the factors that will make a difference to your mobile experience.

Check & Compare Mobile Coverage

UK Mobile Coverage is provided by four providersIn the UK, only four companies hold a license to build their own mobile network. The four licensed companies are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Each company has leased some spectrum from the Government and has built their own network of mobile phone masts to cover the country. 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 a number of companies that re-sell mobile services. They lease spare capacity from one of the network providers and sell a mobile service under their own brand. Within the mobile industry, these companies are called “mobile virtual network operators” (MVNOs for short). Each MVNO has the power to set their own prices: hence they might charge less for calling and texting compared to the companies that maintain their own network.

The mobile signal you receive from a MVNO is actually provided by one of the four companies that maintain mobile infrastructure. For instance, giffgaff uses the O2 network whereas Virgin Mobile uses the EE network. Although you receive a service branded by giffgaff or Virgin, the signal will actually come from O2 or EE-owned masts.

It’s important to know the company that provides the signal for your network. This allows you to use the relevant coverage checker: each network provider has an online map showing the coverage available in different parts of the country. MVNOs give identical coverage to the background network provider.

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 that). For each network, we’ve also provided a link where you’re able to access the relevant coverage map.

Brand of Mobile Network Actual Network Provider 2G 3G 4G Coverage Checker
ASDA Mobile EE Check ASDA Coverage
BT Mobile EE Check BT Mobile Coverage
Delight Mobile EE Check Delight Mobile Coverage
EE EE Check EE Coverage
Family Mobile (IKEA) EE Check Family Mobile Coverage
giffgaff O2 Check giffgaff Coverage
Lebara Mobile Vodafone Check Lebara Mobile Coverage
LIFE Mobile (Phones4u) EE Check LIFE Mobile Coverage
Lycamobile O2 Check Lycamobile Coverage
Mobile By Sainsbury’s Vodafone Check Sainsbury’s Coverage
O2 O2 Check O2 Coverage
Orange EE Check Orange Coverage
Talkmobile Vodafone Check Talkmobile Coverage
Tesco Mobile O2 Check Tesco Mobile Coverage
The People’s Operator EE Check The People’s Operator Coverage
Three Three Check Three Coverage
T-Mobile EE Check T-Mobile Coverage
Vectone Mobile EE Check Vectone Mobile Coverage
Virgin Mobile EE Check Virgin Mobile Coverage
Vodafone Vodafone Check Vodafone Coverage

The mobile networks highlighted in bold maintain their own network infrastructure. Mobile networks that aren’t in bold are considered to be MVNOs. They lease their capacity from one of the network providers.

How To Assess Mobile Coverage

The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the online map relevant to your network. In the table above, click the relevant link to access the coverage map for the network you’re planning to join. You’re normally able to enter your postcode: this will take you directly to where you live. It’s also worth checking the places where you regularly spend time: for instance your school or your workplace. You’ll want to have mobile coverage in the places you visit often.

When checking the online coverage maps, there are two key things you should be looking for. The first is indoor coverage: being able to use your phone whilst inside your house. The second is the type of coverage: you’ll want 3G or 4G to get a good smartphone experience.

Indoor & Outdoor Coverage

Coverage is weaker in buildings

Mobile coverage is weakened by buildings. Look for a network with indoor mobile coverage.

If possible, choose a mobile network that offers both indoor and outdoor coverage. This is vital if you want to be able to use your phone in a building: for instance at home or in the office. If your network only offers outdoor coverage, you may get a poor smartphone experience and there’s a high likelihood of missing incoming calls.

Note: As with all types of radio signal, mobile phone signals can be weakened by building materials. The presence of neighbouring buildings and the materials used to construct your house can weaken the strength of your mobile phone signal. Online coverage maps try to take account of this. A strong 5-bar signal will be said to give “indoor & outdoor coverage” whereas a weaker 1-bar signal will be said to give only outdoor coverage.

In reality, circumstances could differ from the coverage map predictions. This is particularly the case for people living in basement flats where it can sometimes be difficult to receive a signal from any of the provider. If you live in a basement flat and struggle to get signal from all of the networks, consider a solution such as O2′s Tu Go, Vodafone’s Sure Signal, Three’s Home Signal or Orange’s UMA.

Type of Coverage: 2G, 3G & 4G

When accessing an online coverage map, you’ll normally be shown the levels of 2G, 3G and 4G coverage.

Types of Coverage: 2G, 3G and 4G

2G, 3G and 4G relate to the download speeds you can obtain on your smartphone.

  • 2G is the oldest type of mobile network currently in use. It’s mainly designed for calling and texting but you’re also able to do some basic web browsing. If you’re just looking to call and text, 2G coverage should suffice for your needs. However, if you’re a smartphone owner, we’d recommend a network with 3G or 4G mobile coverage.
  • 3G (recommended) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It’s designed for smartphone users: you can browse the web and use almost any application. You can also call and text as you can on 2G. A good 3G connection should be fast enough for almost any activity on your smartphone. This includes online radio, video calling with apps such as Skype and television streaming through BBC iPlayer.
  • 4G is the next-generation of mobile network. It provides faster downloads and a better online experience compared to 3G. A limited number of networks currently provide 4G and you’ll normally need to pay a premium for it. The table above shows a list of networks that currently offer 4G. As 3G is already fast enough for almost any smartphone activity, we would caution readers against paying over the odds for 4G connectivity. For more information, see our guide to how download speeds compare on 3G and 4G.

Whenever possible, you should choose a mobile network that at least offers 3G connectivity.

Real World Experimentation

Finally, it’s worth noting that the data in online coverage maps is based on a computer prediction. It’s the network provider’s expectation based on factors such as where their masts are located. As earlier discussed, your mileage may vary depending on factors such as the materials used to construct your home.

SIM Card

You can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card to test the level of coverage.

Before signing a 24-month contract, you may wish to carry out a real world experiment. For instance, ask your family members about their experience of a certain network provider. They don’t need to be customers of the network you’d like to join: they simply need to share the same underlying provider (e.g. EE, O2, Three or Vodafone). Is their mobile service reliable when they’re at home? Do they ever experience problems with coverage?

A further way to test this is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the network you’d like to join. You can insert this in any unlocked smartphone: see whether the coverage is reliable and how many bars you’re able to get on your phone. Android users can get a numerical value on the quality of their coverage. On your smartphone, navigate to Settings > About device > Status and read off the Signal strength value. A smaller dBm equates to better signal (e.g. -80 dBm is better than -90 dBm). You can test the level of coverage once for each network provider.

Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK

The UK has four network providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Please refer to the detailed coverage maps (linked below) for an overview of the service available where you live.

EE

EE (99% coverage)

EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. As well as providing services under their own brand, they provide the underlying network for ASDA Mobile, BT Mobile, Delight Mobile, Family Mobile, LIFE Mobile, Orange, The People’s Operator, T-Mobile, Vectone Mobile and Virgin Mobile. 4G is only available on the EE brand.

Check Coverage on EE & EE MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
60% population coverage (800MHz, 1800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)

O2

O2 (99% coverage)

O2 provides the underlying service for 3 MVNOs: giffgaff, Lycamobile and Tesco Mobile. All four networks have 4G coverage providing you choose a 4G-enabled tariff.

Check Coverage on O2 & O2 MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
10 cities (800MHz frequency)

Three

Three (98% coverage)

At present, Three provides both a 3G and 4G service. This is branded as Ultrafast Internet. You’ll need a handset that is at least able to connect to 3G mobile networks (you can’t use a 2G-only handset). Three does not provide the underlying service for any other network.

Check Coverage on Three »

2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
Launching in December 2013 (800MHz & 1800MHz frequencies)

Vodafone

Vodafone (98% coverage)

Vodafone provide the underlying service for 3 MVNOs: Lebara Mobile, Mobile By Sainsbury’s and Talkmobile. They have launched 4G in six cities: this is only available through the Vodafone Red 4G plans.

Check Coverage on Vodafone & Vodafone MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
89% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
6 cities (800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)

About MVNOs

O2's MVNOs: giffgaff, Tesco Mobile and Lycamobile

O2 uses MVNOs to target different parts of the market.

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 underlying network provider manages all of the fixed network infrastructure (e.g. the required licenses, the mobile masts and the network of backhaul connections). The virtual network operator simply provides services such as billing and customer support.

In some cases, the virtual network operator could be owned or partly-owned by the underlying network provider. This can be an effective way for companies to target different groups of customers. For instance, O2 owns 50% of Tesco Mobile and 100% of giffgaff. Compared to O2, Tesco and giffgaff target more price-conscious consumers. O2 is able to offer lower calling rates through their MVNO subsidiaries. This can be done without cannibalising revenues on the premium brand.

Savvy consumers can often save money by switching to a low-cost MVNO. They’ll receive the same underlying service at a reduced monthly cost.

Historical Information

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 changed the level of coverage they can offer.

  • ASDA Mobile. In October 2013, ASDA Mobile switched to using the EE network. Prior to this, ASDA operated their mobile service on the Vodafone network. New customers joining ASDA Mobile from October 2013 will receive a signal provided by EE. Existing customers are able to stay on the Vodafone-based network until the 30th April 2014. After this date, they’ll have to switch to EE.
  • BT Mobile. In October 2013, BT signed a deal with EE to operate the BT Mobile service on EE’s mobile network. Prior to this, BT had a business mobile service that ran on the Vodafone network.
  • 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 single combined network under the EE brand. The combined 3G networks of Orange and T-Mobile have now become the 3G network of EE. In addition, EE launched a 4G network but so far this has been restricted to customers on the EE brand. Orange and T-Mobile customers are restricted to the 3G network.
  • OVIVO Mobile. OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service was closed on March 19th 2014.

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

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+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 19 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. morgan said:

    Thanks for article. Where can I get a full list of MVNOs and providers. Shouldn’t ofcom hold an up to date list of MVNO’s and their actual network providers ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Morgan,
      Thanks for your comment. I’d recommend having a look at the MVNO Dynamics site for a more comprehensive list of MVNOs. Do be aware that not all of the MVNOs are active, some are really small and many don’t sell directly to UK consumers.
      I’m sure Ofcom must also maintain a list of licensees but I’m not aware of this being available online.
      Ken

  2. patsy chapman said:

    very informative for someone about to get their first smartphone
    patsy

  3. Brian said:

    This is a great article but I still can’t get to the bottom of whether MVNO’s have the SAME service level as the native operators. Are they treated the same when cells are busy or do they get lower priority and suffer higher drop rates? Is there any evidence of Data throttling for the MVNOs? There is very little transparency on this as far as I can see and I haven’t found a definitive statement anywhere!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your comment and you raise a really interesting point! The coverage should always be the same on a MVNO and the underlying network provider. This, however, doesn’t mean the level of service will always be the same (i.e. you can have the same coverage but speeds could be lower). Each MVNO can implement their own policies on the quality of service and how traffic is prioritised. As an example of this, see my article on traffic management policies and how they differ for each UK network.
      Unfortunately, there’s no public data regarding the quality of service and which customers will receive priority over others. The exact details are likely to be defined in the confidential agreements between each MVNO and the underlying network provider. It’ll also be a function of how each MVNO manages the traffic internally on their network. The answer to your question could be different depending on the MVNO (and all such evidence would be somewhat anecdotal).
      I’m aware there have been discussions regarding traffic priority on giffgaff and O2. Several people have suggested that customers on O2 often get priority (e.g. here). That said, I’m not sure if the question has ever been answered officially.
      Ken

  4. andy said:

    Hi just wondering if you know what operators and MVNOs have uk call centres, due to accent,
    getting point over and quality of call thanks Andy

  5. Derek said:

    I’m a member of giffgaff and found this thread very helpful in deed. I’ll probably be linking to it on the giffgaff forums so expect some more traffic.

  6. Joythi said:

    Hi Ken, Thanks for the articles
    you made greatful contents!! amazing :)
    I have a question about MVNO
    Could we know how many MVNO in UK?
    17 operators in the table except main operators are total MVNO?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Joythi,
      You’re right… in the UK, all of the mobile networks are MVNOs except from EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. I’m not sure about a complete list of MVNOs… the list I’ve provided is far from comprehensive (it only covers the largest consumer MVNOs). There’s also lots of business and specialist MVNOs. The PrepaidMVNO website has a list of 90 UK MVNOs. I’m not sure how many are current – it’s possible that some of them aren’t currently trading or selling to consumers so do double-check the reliability of the list!
      Ken

  7. Michael said:

    Thanks for the article! :) This is a extremely useful site for those looking at Virtual operators and how to assess coverage and quality in the UK.

    I am finding that some of the Virtual operators have ‘variable’ quality in that some of them only use the spare capacity of their host network and perhaps at a lower priority :( therefore, experience a lot of ‘drop-outs’ during a calls no matter where called from.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks! You make a really interesting point… When mobile masts are congested (i.e. when there is abnormally high traffic), I guess there would be some kind of system prioritising different types of user (e.g. business customers get priority over normal consumers). I’m not sure if there’s any specific data on how traffic is prioritised and which MVNOs receive priority over others. If any other readers have a thought on this issue or some real-world data which illustrates this happening, I’d be really interested in hearing about it!

      That said, if your local mast has plenty of spare capacity (as it should under normal circumstances) then there’s unlikely to be a difference between MVNO service quality.

      Ken

      1. David Thompson replied:

        Hi Ken
        Interesting comments re MVNO receiving priority. I’m on TalkTalk mobile which piggybacks on Vodafone. I live in a small rural village and I suspected that Vodafone were squeezing TalkTalk and prioritising their own customers because my data signal has virtually disappeared over the past few months (although voice signal is good). However on checking with a different handset which uses Vodafone, and testing signal strength with the OpenSignal Android app which is installed on both the TalkTalk and Vodafone handsets, the data signal is identical (i.e. practically zero). I have a tracker installed on my handset which was a Godsend a year ago when I dropped it in a remote location, and I managed to locate it from my PC. Now it no longer works reliably where there is a poor signal.
        Maybe it’s time for a move away to EE…!

  8. Adrian said:

    The network coverage may exist (in theory) but network availability is another matter. Having toured the UK extensively including Wales and Scotland there are so many places where there is no Vodafone coverage and 3G is like vapourware. I have to use a Sure Signal box at home to get a signal, even that is not perfect. I am not picking on Vodafone they are my provider of choice the others seem no better. Cross the channel and there is a strong 5 bar signal and plenty of capacity everywhere.
    Am I the only one to feel this way?

    Adrian

  9. Len Cooper said:

    This is a great web site as Ive searched for ages to discover a reason that my mobile phone fails often to receive incoming calls with a Tesco Sim – I have seen here that the Tesco Network is Virtual – When I use my phone on Orange now EE I have no problems and The EE Network is real and giving me a more reliable connection. It may well be that other users in different locations and using different mobiles of course can get different results but I will be sticking to main and real networks in future. My reason for using Tesco in the first place was the reasonable price of the calls, however as my business depends on my answering calls quickly then price is not relevant against quality of service. Well done for this most informative site please keep it up to date as some of us out here want to learn or need to learn ……

  10. lee said:

    orange and T-Mobile have had native 3g cross native network (it picks the best signal now) now for last 3 months please correct your list

    apart from that list is very good

  11. karl said:

    hey ken this website is great but ive had a problem with talk mobile where they wont let me change my number , they say i had to use it a point of sale and beacuse there a virtual proivder cant change the number afterwards.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Karl,

      I'm not sure it is true that MVNOs cannot change the number afterwards: for example giffgaff do this all the time. Though perhaps there is a limitation on the Talkmobile system? I'm afraid I can't really advise beyond what Talkmobile customer services can tell you, sorry :(

      Ken

  12. jadam said:

    Hiya, great site, very small correction Lebara uses Vodafone same as Asda

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Right you are – thanks! I've updated the article.

      Ken

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