A few thoughts on the UK’s mobile operators

Some weeks ago, a report was published that at the time, attracted quite a lot of attention. It was headlined the “UK’s most comprehensive tests of mobile networks”, so given my interests, I decided to give it a good read through.

The BBC reported it here, while the original direct from RootMetrics can be seen here.

I’ve always (probably incorrectly), thought I have a fairly decent knowledge of the pros and cons of the mobile networks, so was interested to see how my view compared to this survey. Sure, everyone has their view, but for me the decision as to which operator you choose has to be a balance of cost versus performance, and that the definition of “performance” for one user can be different to another.

In years gone by, the big two, O2 (Cellnet as was) and Vodafone always had the better coverage, they had more frequencies to go at, more masts and had been building their networks for many years before the other operators even got started. Then along came Orange and OneToOne (soon to be T-Mobile) who built networks from scratch primarily on 1800MHz. Finally, “3” launched after all the operators had paid an absolute fortune for their 3G licences.

Once all the operators were in place, I’d still argue, that the best choice was still likely to be O2 or Vodafone, since at the time they continued to have the better coverage. And by that I mean in remote or rural areas, you’d probably be able to pick up a signal from the big two, whereas there was little chance from one of the “new” players.

Now, that’s all changed. What I’ve experienced is that Vodafone (as the report finds), has indeed the worst performance of the UK networks, and by some distance. For example, where I live, a mast has been promised for the last three years, but still nothing. In my house I can’t even get a 2G signal, let alone 3G or god forbid 4G/LTE. Driving around it’s a similar story. Sure, in the big cities they just about put up a fight, but outside of that you’ll find many areas where if you’re wanting to use your phone for data, the best you’ll get is a 2G signal.

My wife, and the rest of the family are on O2. While this is a little better, at least in and around where I live, it’s still not great. Coverage can be patchy, but at least they’ve more masts than Vodafone so you at least get a chance of a connection. So, I’d agree with the survey, the worst two are indeed now the old big two providers.

What has surprised me is how well the networks of the other operators have improved. Sure, there’s been a lot of network sharing to the point you may not even know who’s bit of the network you’re actually on (Three share their 3G network with what was T-Mobile), and T-Mobile were taken over my Orange to form “EE” who are all talking about how to share each other’s networks, but the net result is that if you’re with EE, Orange, T-Mobile or Three, there’s a pretty good chance you’re likely to be better off.

So, let’s lump Orange and T-Mobile together into EE (which is what they are now), how do you decide between them and Three? Tough one. But I think the survey has it right. For out and out coverage, EE is the answer. Simply because at least for now, Three only have a 3G network (with 4G rolling out), but no 2G network. They used to have a fall back roaming arrangement initially with O2, then with Orange, but that no longer exists. The result, is that if you were out in the sticks somewhere, due to 2100MHz not handling distance well, you could end up out of coverage.

If you’re basing your choice on data speed, then it’s still EE, simply because they have more 4G today than anyone else. If you’re looking for the quality and speed of the network, then, in my view it’s Three. While a lot of it is only 3G, it’s damned good 3G with consistently high throughput.

So, in summary, there’s nothing I disagree with in the survey. I think it’s an excellent piece of work that reflects the current situation. Operators continue to change, so what’s right today, could be totally different within a few months. But if I were signing up for a new contract today, it’d be a tough choice between Three and EE. I like the unlimited data tariffs of Three, their network quality I believe is better than EE’s but EE do have better coverage. Your choice 🙂


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