Research: Which mobile network is the cheapest? – The Graphical Visualisation

January 25th, 2012

In this article, we present a graphical visualisation of which networks provide the cheapest mobile tariffs.

Over the last few months, we’ve been carrying out an extensive investigation into which mobile networks provide the best-value tariffs. Part of that research has gone into developing new tools such as our Galaxy S II price comparison calculator, iPhone 4S price comparison calculator and our new Pay As You Go VS Contract price comparison website. In this article, I want to go back to basics and to answer the question: is there one mobile network which is consistently the cheapest? Do we really need price comparison websites or can we answer the question of the cheapest tariff without one? Are there any trends we can pick out?

Does the cheapest mobile network depend on the amount of calls I use or the amount I download?

Yes, very much so: it depends very strongly on the number of minutes you use and the amount of stuff you download. The following diagram visualises the cheapest network for a new BlackBerry Bold 9900 tariff. The number of minutes lies on the vertical axis and the amount of data consumed on the horizontal axis. In order to find the cheapest network corresponding to your usage, read along the relevant row and column to find a colour-coded box indicating which network offers the best value deal.

The key is as follows:

As an example of how to read the graph, somebody who uses 250 minutes and 200MB data each month will find that Orange gives the best value deal (we find 250 minutes on the vertical and 200MB on the horizontal). Meanwhile if you use 250 minutes and 100MB data, O2 is cheapest (denoted by blue). For someone using 250 minutes and no data, T-Mobile is cheapest (denoted by pink).

Our visualisation shows that cheapest network to buy a new BlackBerry Bold 9900 could either be Three, O2, Orange or T-Mobile depending on exactly how you use your phone (number of phone calls, data consumption, apps downloaded, etc). On the whole, Three offers the best deal for heavy downloaders (their ‘One Plan’ tariff offers all-you-can-eat data with no download limits) whereas O2 and Orange offer better deals for people who don’t download as much.

Does the cheapest network also depend on the number of text messages I send?

Not so much – the reason being that the vast majority of mobile tariffs include unlimited texts. The following diagram visualises the cheapest network for people who use different amounts of minutes and texts. The number of minutes is on the vertical axis and the number of text messages on the horizontal axis. We primarily see horizontal bands in this visualisation: showing that the cheapest network isn’t really influenced by the number of text messages sent. The exception is at 50 minutes: somebody sending 300+ texts a month would find Orange the cheapest whereas someone using fewer texts would find O2 provides better value.

Note that we’ve assumed an average data usage of 250MB/month here (we are not varying data consumption in this study).

Does the cheapest network also depend on the handset I want?

Yes. We repeated our analysis to create visualisations for the cheapest Apple iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S II and Nokia Lumia 800. The following plots show the cheapest network for different combinations of minutes (vertical axis) and download allowances (horizontal axis). Some trends we’ve observed are that:

  • Three generally provides the best value tariffs if your data consumption is above 500MB or 1GB.
  • O2 tends to provide the best value tariffs for users who make less than 200 minutes worth of phone calls a month.

For completeness we present the full set visualisations for all four phones below. The left column shows the cheapest network for different minutes/data combinations (with 250 texts) whilst the right column shows the cheapest network for different minutes/texts combinations (with 250MB data usage). The phones we compared were the BlackBerry Bold 9900, Apple iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S II and Nokia Lumia 800.

Minutes VS Data Minutes VS Texts

What conclusions can we draw?

Our analyses show that there is no simple answer to the question of which network is the cheapest – it’s worth using a price comparison calculator to check. General trends are that Three tends to offer the best deals for heavy data users whilst O2 offers some of the best deals for people who use fewer than 200 minutes a month. T-Mobile and Orange have some fairly respectable showings in our study whilst Vodafone tends to be one of the more expensive networks (we rarely saw Vodafone being the cheapest network).

  • This study makes use of the total cost of ownership calculation when comparing mobile contract prices. This takes into account both the upfront price and the 24 monthly payments to calculate the total amount paid over 24 months. The cheapest mobile contract is calculated using the tools provided at For this study, we are not including Pay As You Go tariffs (e.g. Giffgaff).

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About Ken

Ken Lo

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.

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