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.
If 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
In 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.
* 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
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.
- 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).
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
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.
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.
2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
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.
2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
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).
2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
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.
2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
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.
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.
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+.