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

February 3rd, 2015

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.

Mobile phone coverage is provided by mastsIf you’re choosing a new mobile phone network, the level and the quality 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 when using 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 mobile phone’s battery life (poor mobile coverage will very quickly drain the 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 how to 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 the coverage across networks. We’ll also discuss how to assess the quality of coverage offered on each network: the key things you should be looking out for and the factors that’ll make a difference to your mobile phone 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 of the companies has licensed some spectrum from the Government and has 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 companies that re-sell mobile services. They lease spare capacity from one of the network providers and sell a mobile phone service under their own brand. Within the mobile industry, these companies are known as a “mobile virtual network operator” (or MVNO 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 as giffgaff or Virgin Mobile, the actual underlying coverage comes from O2-owned or EE-owned phone masts.

It’s important to know the company that provides the signal for your network. This will allow you to use the relevant online coverage checker (an online coverage map showing the services and signal available in your area). MVNOs will give identical levels of 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 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.

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
Co-Operative Mobile EE Check Co-Op Mobile Coverage
Delight Mobile EE Check Delight Mobile Coverage
EE EE Check EE Coverage
Family Mobile EE Check Family Mobile Coverage
giffgaff O2 Check giffgaff Coverage
iD Mobile Three Check iD Mobile Coverage
Lebara Mobile Vodafone Check Lebara Mobile Coverage
LIFE Mobile 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
TalkTalk Vodafone* Check TalkTalk Coverage
Tesco Mobile O2 Check Tesco Mobile Coverage
The People’s Operator EE Check 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

* 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.

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 network provider listed in the table.

How To Assess Mobile Coverage

The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the online coverage 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’ll normally be 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 (e.g. your school, university or workplace). You’ll want to have reliable coverage at all of the places where you regularly spend time.

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 when inside of a building. The second is the type of coverage you’re able to access: you’ll want 3G or 4G coverage for 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 use your phone inside of a building (e.g. in your home or in your office). If your network provider only offers 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: As with all types of radio-based signal, mobile phone signals can be weakened by building materials. The presence of neighbouring buildings and the materials used to construct your home can weaken the strength of your mobile phone signal. Online coverage maps will try to take this into account. A strong 5-bar signal might be said to give “indoor & outdoor coverage”. Meanwhile, a weaker 1-bar signal might be said to give outdoor coverage only.

In reality, circumstances can differ from 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 network providers. If you live in a basement flat or struggle to get signal from any of the network providers, consider a broadband-based solution such as O2’s Tu Go, Three’s inTouch or Vodafone’s Sure Signal.

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.

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 still in use today. 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 would strongly recommend choosing a network with 3G or 4G coverage.
  • 3G (recommended minimum) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It’s designed for smartphone users: you can browse the web and you can use almost any app. 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 listening to online radio, video calling with Skype or FaceTime and television streaming through the BBC iPlayer application.
  • 4G is the next-generation of mobile phone network. It provides faster downloads and a better online experience compared to 3G. The table above shows a list of the networks currently offering 4G mobile coverage. Please be aware: you might need a special 4G-enabled tariff before you’re able to access the 4G coverage (a premium will sometimes be charged for this).

Whenever possible, you should choose a mobile network offering 3G or 4G connectivity.

Real World Experimentation

Finally, it’s worth noting that the data shown in online coverage maps is based upon computer predictions. It gives your network provider’s expectation of coverage based on geography and where their masts are located. As discussed earlier in this article, the actual level of coverage you’re able to receive may depend on other factors (e.g. the materials used to construct your home and the presence of other nearby buildings).

SIM Card

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

Before signing up to 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 a customer of the exact network you’re planning to join: they simply need to use 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 is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the network you’d like to join. You can put the SIM card into any unlocked smartphone: check to see whether the coverage is reliable. How many bars of signal are you able to get on the phone? Android users can get a numerical value for the strength of the network coverage: on your smartphone, navigate to Settings > More > About device > Status and read off the ‘Signal strength’ value. A smaller dBm equates to better signal (e.g. -80 dBm is much 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, Co-operative Mobile, Delight Mobile, Family Mobile, LIFE Mobile, Orange, The People’s Operator, T-Mobile, Vectone Mobile and Virgin Mobile.

At present, 4G is only available on the BT Mobile and EE brands. Customers of all other brands will only have access to 2G and 3G.

As of April 2015, EE has 87% population coverage for 4G internet. This is the widest 4G coverage of any UK network. Double-speed 4G coverage currently stands at 67% with 4G+ (LTE-Advanced) coverage currently rolling out to customers in London. EE is aiming to have 98% population coverage for 4G by the end of 2015.

Check Coverage on EE & EE MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
87% population coverage (800MHz, 1800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)

O2

O2 (99% coverage)

O2 provides the underlying service for 3 MVNOs: giffgaff, Lycamobile and Tesco Mobile. Both O2 and all three of the O2 MVNOs provide 4G internet on compatible tariffs. As of February 2015, O2 has 59% population coverage on 4G.

Check Coverage on O2 & O2 MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
59% population coverage (800MHz frequency)

Three

Three (98% coverage)

At present, Three provides a 3G and 4G service. You’ll need a handset that is at least able to connect to 3G networks (you can’t use a 2G-only handset on Three). As of April 2015, Three has 60% population coverage for 4G. Three provides the underlying service for iD Mobile (a MVNO from the Carphone Warehouse).

Check Coverage on Three »

2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
60% population coverage (800MHz & 1800MHz frequencies)

Vodafone

Vodafone (98% coverage)

Vodafone provides the underlying service for 4 MVNOs: Lebara Mobile, Mobile By Sainsbury’s, Talkmobile and TalkTalk. At present, 4G is only available on the Vodafone brand (the Vodafone MVNOs are restricted to 3G coverage). As of January 2015, Vodafone has 50% population coverage on 4G.

Check Coverage on Vodafone & Vodafone MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
89% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
50% population coverage (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 is owned or is partly-owned by the underlying network provider. This can be a hugely effective way for companies to target different groups of customers. For instance, O2 owns 50% of Tesco Mobile and 100% of giffgaff. Compared to the main O2 brand, Tesco and giffgaff target more price-conscious consumers. O2 is therefore able to attract price-conscious consumers on their MVNO subsidiaries without cannibalising the revenues on their premium core 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 has launched a 4G network but this isn’t 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 to using coverage from O2. Hence, customers on TalkTalk currently continue to receive coverage from the Vodafone network. There is no timeframe at present for when customers will be moved over to O2’s network.
  • Sky. In 2016, Sky is due to launch a MVNO using coverage from O2.

    

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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 51 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Vanessa said:

    While talking to Three regarding a possible new contract with them, I said I was considering switching to O2, but via a third party. Three told me that if I did this, I would be de-prioritised as an O2 customer and not get such good signal as one of their direct customers. I can’t find anything online to substantiate this claim. Can you comment?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Vanessa,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s theorised that O2 has different levels of priority on their network. With an educated guess: priority 1 would be business users, priority 2 would be Pay Monthly customers and priority 3 would be Pay As You Go. Saying this, the information and levels of priority have never been confirmed officially be O2.
      With regards to your question about connecting to O2 via a third-party provider, it’s highly unlikely O2 will differentiate based on where you bought the contract (all customers on O2 Pay Monthly contract should get the same priority). If you’re switching to an O2 MVNO (e.g. giffgaff or Tesco Mobile), the answer may be different and the priority may differ.
      Ken

  2. Tracey said:

    Hi There
    Could you help me I am on Three but my signal isn’t very good.
    I live in Nottingham I want to leave them but I don’t know who to go with either EE or O2 or Vodafone.
    My work mates are on EE but didn’t get any signal today at work but another mates who is on 02 & Vodafone did.
    So which is better.
    But I heard that EE is meant to be one of the top networks
    Thank you

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Tracey,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to give you a specific answer with regards to coverage (it will differ substantially based on where you live and work). In the first instance, I’d definitely use the coverage checkers here (it might help to rule out a few networks). Once you’ve done that, it’s definitely worth ordering some free Pay As You Go SIM cards. They’ll allow you to test the coverage on each network (there’s no need for you to top-up before you do this). Your smartphone will need to be unlocked for you to use SIM cards from another network (if your handset was purchased from Three, it should already be unlocked for use on any network).
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  3. Torkeer said:

    Hi Ken,

    Firstly, great site. Keep up the good work.

    I have a question about smartphones. I would like to buy a dual sim Samsung galaxy phone – note 4 or the A7. I was wondering if you know a reputable seller whom I could purchase from in the UK or from abroad?

    I know Samsung dual sim phones are not available in Europe but are sold mainly in the far east. I find this quiet bizarre as I am sure there is a demand for them in Europe too but the manufacturers are doing nothing to sell them.

    Thanks.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Torkeer,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, Samsung doesn’t officially sell dual-SIM handsets here in the UK. Hence, anything you buy is likely to be imported (double-check the frequency bands supported in case they don’t match up with networks in the UK). With regards to retailers & importers, I’m afraid I can’t advise on reputable sellers (this isn’t something I’ve ever tried myself)!
      Ken

  4. Tom said:

    Hi,
    I have poor coverage in my house and currently use a sure signal box to boost this, for that reason I’m keen to stay on vodafone but am wondering if I could continue to use the signal booster on the vodafone network through any of the piggyback providers. Is this possible?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, the Vodafone Sure Signal will only work with Vodafone SIM cards (you can’t use it on Vodafone MVNOs). Sorry about that!
      Ken

  5. Martin said:

    Hello Ken this is a strange problem I have come across, I’m a helper on the giffgaff network a user came on the forum with a problem. He has a Samsung Galaxy S5 mini he purchased this from talk talk who said it was unlocked. It connects to the giffgaff network but only stays connected for 5 minutes. I’ve suggested everything but nothing works. Any ideas ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Martin,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the question has stumped me as much as it’s stumped you! I can’t think of any obvious reason why the phone will only connect for 5 minutes at a time (is it always exactly the same amount of time or does the 5 minute figure vary every time?). The obvious things to try are:
      1) Using a SIM card from another network in the Galaxy S5 mini – ideally, the SIM card should be on another coverage provider and should not be a network using coverage from O2.
      2) Using the giffgaff SIM card in another handset (perhaps borrowed from friends/family).
      Doing these two things should help diagnose whether it’s a problem with the handset or a problem with the network. Beyond that, I don’t have any further thoughts to mind as to why this is happening on his Galaxy S5 mini.
      Ken

      1. Martin replied:

        Hello Ken, thank you for the quick reply, it disconnects after 5 minutes each time. My assumption is the phone isn’t saving the settings automatically once the giffgaff sim is installed. He’s tried manual apn configuration but still the same. He’s tried the sim in a Sony Z10 and it works fine. So looks like the phone has compatibility issues. I’ve suggested trying another sim from a network provider like EE. Just to see if the phone is unlocked. He said there was no branding on start so that’s not an issue.

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Martin,
          Count me in as totally stumped! Can’t think of any obvious answers but definitely worth trying the two things I mentioned in my comment. One other thing that did come to mind: is the handset imported from another country? If so, Samsung is known to use region locking on their phone. I’m not quite sure how the region locking works but you normally need to make a 5 minute phone call in the region where you bought the handset (otherwise, it won’t work abroad in another country). Not sure if this is possibly related (if so, I’m not sure why it’s managing to work for the first 5 minutes every time).
          Ken

  6. Ash said:

    Could any one give me the unlock code from ee to giffgaff as I’ve got Samsung galaxy s5 mini and no longer want to be with ee. I want to go to giffgaff but now they’re telling me I have to pay to change. not good. another thing, I brought the phone now they want to charge me to go to giffgaff. any one with unlock pls help – it’s a s4 mini (GT-I9150). thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Ash,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, EE charges £20.42 if you want to unlock a phone from their network (see this article for more information). Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways you’re able to get around this (unless you’re able to find a working unlock method that’s free).
      With regards to a PAC Code for moving your number from EE to giffgaff, it should always be free to receive this code (it’s your legal entitlement and EE must provide it free of charge within two hours of your request).
      Ken

  7. Jill said:

    Hi, I am a volunteer for a village ‘good neighbour’ network. We have 6 volunteers who share a basic 2G phone on EE network to take calls from villagers wanting transport to hospital etc. We are in a very poor network coverage area (coverage worsened in last few months). We cannot use a signal box as that would mean moving it to a different house each week. We have lobbied network providers, local MP, council etc. re getting improved coverage. In long term there’s possibility of mast on new community centre. Any advice on how we could improve things on short term basis? Would a 4G phone give us any advantages – e.g. transferring calls to a landline?
    We would appreciate any advice you may be able to offer
    Thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Jill,
      I’m afraid I can’t give you very much advice regarding the situation beyond trying to get a femtocell e.g. a Vodafone Rural Open Signal.
      I would say that 4G probably isn’t useful for calling at the moment: today’s 4G networks don’t actually support voice calling (they use a technology called CSFB whereby your phone actually falls back to a 3G network in order to make a phone call). Hence, it’s probably best to focus on getting 3G coverage rather than 4G (at least for the time being).
      Wishing you all the best of luck with the campaign,
      Ken

      1. Jill replied:

        Thanks for the advice Ken

  8. Simon said:

    Hi Ken, after being given the “truth about supermarkets mobile providers/coverage” by 1 of the big 4 mobile providers keen on getting my business, but not keen on me going elsewhere, here i found the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!!

    I can now get a good deal at less cost & with more minutes/texts & data per month.
    So glad i found this site before being pressurized in to a 12 month contract!

  9. Adam Garfunkel said:

    Hi there. I am a Vodafone customer (and pay for my wife and eldest daughter’s phones through Vodafone). I have just been told by a Vodafone call-centre salesperson that if I go with buy the phone and the Vodafone contract through Carphone Warehouse then as Carphone Warehouse ‘only rents’ our masts, the signal will be weaker. I said I thought that sounded like bullshit. She declined to comment and said that she could not discount iPhone 6 prices. Is this ‘weaker signal’ because of renting correct?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Adam,
      Thanks for your comment and a very Merry Christmas! It does sound as if the call centre staff are giving you incorrect info:

      • You’ll always get the same service & coverage on a Vodafone-branded contract regardless of whether you signed up directly or via another company (e.g. the Carphone Warehouse). The signal strength will be exactly the same.
      • If you’re signing up for Talkmobile (the Carphone Warehouse MVNO which uses Vodafone’s network) the story might be slightly different. The signal strength and coverage will still be the same as Talkmobile uses Vodafone’s masts and signal. The service quality could theoretically be different (i.e. if Vodafone decides to prioritise their own customers when a mast becomes busy) but there isn’t any concrete information about what actually happens in real-world usage.

      Anyhow, it sounds to me as if the first is applicable to your situation so you can safely ignore what the call centre have told you!
      Ken

      1. Adam Garfunkel replied:

        Thank you Ken. That is the way I was thinking. It is very poor that Vodafone get their staff to say that, don’t you think. More than ‘very poor’, it’s downright misleading and they shouldn’t do it. Don’t you agree?

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Adam,
          Definitely agreed that they shouldn’t be saying this – probably a combination of poor staff training and them trying to pressure sell you a contract over the phone. Anyhow, you can rest assured you’re getting the same Vodafone service even when buying the contract elsewhere!
          Ken

  10. Austin said:

    Hi Ken,
    Can you give me some advise, I would like to get a smart phone from TalkTalk who use Vodafone.
    I need the phone for London and Eastbourne, I know vodafone are OK in London but have heard their reception is poor indoors in Eastbourne, have you any info on this?
    I have been told that O2 would be better, what do you think?
    Thanks Austin.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Austin,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I can’t say anything about the coverage in Eastbourne (the people living locally would probably be the best ones to ask). In the first instance, I would definitely use Talkmobile’s online coverage checker. This will tell you whether indoor/outdoor coverage should theoretically be available at home, work, etc.
      In reality, your actual coverage may differ from this map (e.g. due to buildings, trees, obstructions, etc). For this reason, it’s always a good idea to first try the signal out directly in your phone. You can order a free SIM card from the network you’d like to trial (I’d probably go for Vodafone Pay As You Go in this case). Stick the free SIM in your existing unlocked smartphone and count the number of bars you get on the network. If the coverage looks OK then you should be good to sign up on Talkmobile!
      Ken

  11. Dave La said:

    Thanks for some really useful information and comparisons especially on pay-as-you-go which well-known price comparison web sites don’t seem to cover.

    I think it is worth emphasising that impressive network coverage figures like 98% and 99% are percentage of the population, not percentage of the land area which is very different, so it is worth checking the coverage maps.

    A network that only supports 3G/4G may be OK in towns and cities but if like me you like to visit rural areas at weekends or on holiday then you will find substantial gaps in coverage for 3G/4G only networks. In that case, you will probably want to choose a network that also provides 2G as a backup in areas with no 3G coverage.

    As you can see from the table above, there is one network that doesn’t provide any 2G service so that would be one to avoid if you are likely to venture outside the more densely populated areas.

    1. Martha replied:

      3 does actually have some 2G coverage via a roaming agreement with EE.

      It has been turned off in areas of 3G/4G coverage and is limited to voice/text but works seamlessly from a customer’s point of view.

      1. Ken Lo
        Ken replied:

        Hi Martha,
        Thanks for the heads up on this! As you say, Three used to have a 2G roaming agreement with Orange. They began turning this off in 2011. I’m not sure how much 2G coverage is still available on Three but I’m willing to assume incredibly little. Anyone trying to use a 2G-only handset on Three will probably find their phone unable to pick up a signal.
        Ken

  12. Andy D said:

    Hi
    I spoke with vodafone as my contract is up and I am moving to Phone Coop which uses EE

    Before giving me my PAC code, the salesman told me that the virtual networks typically only have access to 25 %, or maybe he meant 25 % of the capacity.

    What do you make of this? Is my coverage likely to be that poor? Or is this misleading sales patter?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Andy,
      Thanks for your comment. You raise a really good point – virtual network operators such as the Co-Op mobile will lease their capacity from one of the network providers (EE in this case). There has been some talk about variable service quality – for instance see the comments here and here. In terms of what the salesman has told you, it’s highly likely the statistic was made up. I’ve not yet seen any concrete figures about how much priority is actually assigned to each virtual network operator (I suspect this will differ depending on the network and will only be specified in the confidential agreement between the virtual network and the underlying network provider). My feeling is it’s probably nothing to worry about and the suggestion of 25% capacity is probably a lot of nonsense.
      Hope this helps!
      Ken

      1. Martha replied:

        MVNOs do get lower priority on the network than the MNOs

        E.G. O2s Hierarchy

        1st priority are O2 Business and Contract.
        2nd priority are O2 Prepay and Tesco Mobile.
        3rd priority are Giff Gaff, MVNOs and international roamers.

        It’s obviously more noticeable in congested areas and in the lower capacity bands such as 800/900 MHz

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Martha,
          Thanks for your comment. I’ve read rumours online about this type of prioritisation but never seen anything confirmed (either in terms on a detailed independent study or an official statement from O2). Do you have any resources to this effect? I’d really love to see a detailed study (this is something the guys at OpenSignal or RootMetrics should definitely look into!) so I could update the advice given in this article.
          Thanks,
          Ken

  13. Rob said:

    Hi is anyone else experiencing the Three sim activation failure syndrome, their stock answer from customer services and technical departments is “you have to wait another 24 hours” 4 days now met 18 other customers in their shop today according to their staff over 7,000 customers are affected and the issue may take weeks to rectify, you can not even move your number or cancel your contract as when you ring the cancellation line you are let on hold tried 4 times each time left for up to an hour and no answer, how can such a majo failure go unpublised? Ironicall Three have illuminated displays in their shops rubbishing the other providers bad customer relations as reasons why peole moved over to Three yet they themselves are selling phones with sim cards they know they can not activate pot calling kettle springs to mind.

    just in case antone is having a problem try emailing david.dyson@three.co.uk or ringing 01628 765000 and asking for either Mr. Cocker or Mr. Reilly

  14. 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

  15. patsy chapman said:

    very informative for someone about to get their first smartphone
    patsy

  16. 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

  17. 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

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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…!

  21. 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

  22. 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 ……

  23. 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

  24. 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

  25. 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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