How To Check & Compare UK Mobile Coverage: Networks & MVNOs
November 23rd, 2016
Coverage should be your top consideration when choosing a new mobile network. Find out how to compare coverage and discover which mobile network has the best coverage in your area.
If you’re choosing a new mobile network, the level and quality of coverage should be the first thing you consider.
If your mobile network has poor coverage, potential problems can include missed phone calls, delayed text messages and web pages failing to load. It can also result in substantially poorer battery life as your handset needs to work harder to maintain a connection.
At first glance, it seems daunting to choose the mobile network offering the best coverage in your area. This is because there are more than 20 mobile networks to choose from in the UK. In reality, things are actually much simpler as all of the 20+ mobile networks use one of four underlying coverage providers.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about mobile coverage in the UK. We’ll start by showing 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 compare coverage on different networks. Finally, we’ll discuss the factors that can influence your coverage and we’ll present some apps & accessories for improving your coverage.
Check & Compare Mobile Coverage
In the UK, only four companies hold a license to build and maintain their own mobile network infrastructure. These companies are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. They each license spectrum from the Government and build their own network of mobile phone masts to cover the country.
In addition to the four network providers, there are a large number of mobile virtual network operators (or MVNOs for short). MVNOs do not maintain their own mobile network infrastructure: instead, they piggyback on infrastructure from one of the four coverage providers. As a result, the coverage you receive on a MVNO is exactly the same as the coverage on the underlying provider.
There are many examples of MVNOs in the UK. For instance, BT Mobile is a MVNO using the EE network and giffgaff is a MVNO using the O2 network. Although you might receive a BT Mobile or giffgaff branded service, the underlying coverage will still come be coming from either EE or O2.
Table: UK Mobile Networks & Actual Coverage Provider
In the table below, we’ve provided a list of UK mobile networks. For each mobile network, we’ve shown the underlying coverage provider and the types of coverage available on that network. You can click on the relevant link for each network to access an online coverage map and checker.
* FreedomPop uses the mobile data connection for calling and texting. This means the coverage and service reliability is more limited compared to other networks using Three.
** 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 mobile network infrastructure. All other mobile networks are considered to be MVNOs, piggybacking on the coverage provider listed.
How To Assess Mobile Coverage
The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the relevant online coverage map applicable to your mobile network. You can use the table above to find the relevant coverage map for mobile networks you’re thinking of joining.
Through the online coverage map, it’s worth checking all of the places where you might regularly spend some time. So besides your home, you may also want to check the coverage at your school, university, local pub or workplace. Ideally, you’re looking for a mobile network that provides you with good coverage in all of these places.
Finally, it’s worth spending a little bit of time to review the type of coverage available. You should ideally have good indoor coverage and if you’re a smartphone user, you should also look for either 3G or 4G coverage. If you’re using a basic handset without smartphone capabilities, it may also be necessary to have 2G coverage.
Indoor & Outdoor Coverage
If possible, you should 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. If your mobile network only promises outdoor coverage, we recommend staying clear as you’re likely to have a poor experience.
Please be aware that actual indoor coverage depends on a number of factors not included on the coverage maps. Factors affecting your indoor coverage include building construction materials, your location inside of a building and also the proximity of other nearby buildings. For instance, if you’re living in a basement flat, your actual indoor coverage could be worse than suggested on online maps. If you have reason to believe this might be the case, you can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card to test out your coverage.
If you’re struggling to find a mobile network with good indoor coverage, consider using one of the apps or accessories listed here to improve it.
2G, 3G & 4G Coverage
When studying an online coverage map, you’ll often be shown the breakdown 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 use it to browse the internet at dial-up speeds.
- 3G (recommended minimum for smartphones) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It allows you to call, text and browse the internet on your smartphone. A good 3G connection should provide broadband-level speeds and should be fast enough for almost any activity on your smartphone (including online radio, online video and downloads).
- 4G is the latest generation of mobile technology. It has faster download speeds (around five times faster than 3G). In our opinion, 4G coverage is a nice-to-have but isn’t a requirement for a good smartphone experience.
Where possible, we recommend choosing a mobile network with either 3G or 4G coverage. On basic handsets without smartphone functionality, it may be necessary to choose a network that supports 2G coverage (2G isn’t offered on Three and on Three MVNOs).
Real World Experimentation
Finally, it’s worth noting that online coverage maps only provide a prediction of what the coverage is like in your area. This prediction is based solely on geography and the location of phone masts. However, as discussed, actual real-world coverage may differ depending on other factors (e.g. the materials used to construct your home).
Before signing up to a lengthy 24-month contract, it may be worthwhile to carry out some real-world experiments. For instance, ask people living in your household about their experience of using a certain network coverage provider. Is their mobile service normally reliable at home? Do they ever experience any problems with indoor 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 (or you can get a free SIM card from any mobile network sharing the same coverage provider). You can insert the free SIM card into any unlocked smartphone to test the level of coverage. How many bars of signal are you able to get on that mobile network? Are you able to use it indoors without any problems?
Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK
EE (99% coverage)
EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. Now a division within the BT Group since the January 2016 takeover, EE offers high-speed 4G coverage directly to consumers through the BT Mobile and EE brands.
As of September 2016, EE has 97% 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.
2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
O2 (99% coverage)
O2 provides a mobile service through their own branded network. They also power the underlying coverage for giffgaff, Lycamobile, Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile.
In general, giffgaff is a better value way of accessing coverage from O2 but at a much lower cost.
All of O2’s MVNOs provide access to 4G coverage. As of November 2015, the last time O2 published their coverage statistics, O2 had 78% population coverage on 4G. The company has made a commitment to offering 98% 4G coverage by the end of 2017.
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.
The following MVNOs are currently using Three as their network coverage provider:
As of April 2015, Three has 60% population coverage on 4G. It’s worth noting that Three doesn’t provide any 2G coverage (for this reason, it’s not possible to use a 2G-only handset either on Three or Three’s MVNOs).
2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
Vodafone (98% coverage)
Vodafone 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 to find the mobile network that offers the best coverage in your area. In some cases, however, this won’t be possible (for instance, 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 may 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 requires 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 Home Signal box.
- Vodafone: Vodafone has a wi-fi calling service for compatible smartphones. For anyone using a non-compatible handset, it may also be possible to get a Vodafone Sure Signal.
Typically, MVNOs do not provide or support apps and accessories for better indoor coverage.
Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) piggyback on capacity from a network coverage provider.
The UK has four network coverage providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The coverage provider manages all of the fixed network infrastructure (including the required licenses and the network of mobile phone masts).
MVNOs such as BT Mobile, giffgaff and iD Mobile provide a mobile service on top of the coverage provider’s infrastructure. The underlying coverage will come from the network coverage 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 coverage provider. This is a common technique for targeting different groups of customers. For instance, giffgaff is a subsidiary of O2 targeted towards younger and more price-conscious consumers. Lower prices can be offered on a sub-brand without cannibalising the revenues made on the core brand.
Armed with this knowledge, savvy consumers can often save substantial amounts of money by switching over to a low-cost MVNO. You’ll often receive the exact same coverage at a vastly reduced cost.
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.
- LIFE Mobile. In November 2016, customers on LIFE Mobile transitioned to Plusnet Mobile. Customers who originally signed up for a LIFE Mobile plan will not get 4G coverage automatically from Plusnet Mobile. Instead, ex-LIFE Mobile customers will get only 2G and 3G coverage until they upgrade to a newer 4G-enabled Plusnet Mobile plan.
- Lycamobile. In 2010, Lycamobile switched to using the O2 network. Prior to this, Lycamobile used the Orange network.
- Mobile by Sainsbury’s. From July 2013 to January 2016, Sainsbury’s had an own-brand mobile network using coverage from Vodafone.
- Orange & T-Mobile. In October 2011, Orange and T-Mobile merged their network operations under the EE brand. The combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile became the 2G and 3G network of EE. In addition, EE launched a 4G network under their own brand but this wasn’t made available to customers on Orange or T-Mobile. As of February 2015, it’s no longer possible to join Orange or T-Mobile.
- OVIVO Mobile. OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service closed on March 19th 2014.
- Post Office Mobile. The Post Office Mobile previously used coverage from EE. The service was closed in August 2016.
- TalkTalk Mobile. 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 moved over to O2 and TalkTalk is yet to announce a date for this to happen.
- TPO Mobile. In July 2016, TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) changed their network coverage provider from EE to Three.
- Sky Mobile. In 2016, Sky is due to launch a MVNO using coverage from O2.
My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.
Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.