What’s the best 4G network in the UK?

All four of the UK’s mobile networks are now well into their 4G rollouts, and prices have fallen dramatically since EE first launched 4G in 2012.

Yet, speeds and coverage are still far from where they need to be. A recent Ofcom Connected Nations report  found that despite coverage, overall, increasing, getting access to mobile data when away from the home is still poor. Only 7 out of 10 regions in the UK have telephone call coverage from all four networks, while only 63% have mobile data – up from 63% and 52% respectively last year, but still a way off blanket coverage. 

The report also found coverage on roads needs to improve. It’s possible to make a call across all four networks on just 68% of A and B roads, while 58% of A and B roads have “in-vehicle” data coverage. Elsewhere, urban areas have better coverage than rural regions, and England has better coverage than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In particular, people inside 90% of UK premises can now make telephone calls on all four mobile networks, but this falls to 57% in rural areas. 

Ofcom also found that as coverage increases, 4G take-up increases which drives network operators to invest more in 4G and ultimately improve speeds and coverage, which further fuels take-up. Due to this postcode lottery minefield, we’ve explained which network operators in the UK offer the best 4G services and what 4G actually means. 

What is 4G?

Fourth-generation mobile technology is referred to by the umbrella term 4G. All of the UK’s mobile networks run on the same 4G standard: Long-Term Evolution (LTE), which offers a significant speed increase over the 3G technologies we’ve been using for the past decade or so.

It has a theoretical maximum download speed of around 300Mbits/sec and uploads at up to 75Mbits/sec, although actual network speeds are considerably slower than those headline figures. EE’s “double speed” 4G offers maximum download speeds of 60Mbits/sec and maximum uploads of 11Mbits/sec, although EE admits that the average download speed will be around 20Mbits/sec.

At those speeds, 4G becomes a viable alternative to fixed-line connections

That’s still faster than what most people get on a fixed-line ADSL connection, and only about 12Mbits/sec slower than the average BT fibre-to-the-cabinet connection.

 At those speeds, 4G becomes a viable alternative to fixed-line connections. But there are significant drawbacks to relying on mobile broadband at home, not least the cost of the connection and the amount of data you’re allowed to download every month.

4G also paves the way for enhanced mobile services. On-demand video, which can still be a stuttering, low-resolution affair on 3G networks, is now a near-instantaneous experience on handsets that often boast a resolution as high as your living-room television. Entire albums of music can be downloaded to a handset within seconds.

Mobile working is a much more practical proposition, too, with networks capable of downloading – and, crucially, uploading – large files in a matter of seconds, and dealing with high-bandwidth services such as remote desktop access and videoconferencing. A laptop tethered to a 4G connection now delivers a near-identical experience to connecting to a fixed-line network over Wi-Fi.

What is the best 4G network in the UK?

Before we delve into what the best 4G network in the UK is, we should probably reveal what the best network in the UK is, more generally speaking. 

OpenSignal recently released its 2018 State of Mobile Networks report and, once again, EE came out on top. 

Using a staggering 890,213,316 data points taken from people using the OpenSignal app, EE had the fastest download speeds over 4G and 3G, as well as having the best UK coverage. It also came joint first, in terms of 3G and 4G latency, with Vodafone. 

There were also regional differences. Three was strong in the North East, Northern Ireland and Wales, O2 did well in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and EE triumphed in London. 

But of course, these results only apply to those using the OpenSignal app. In an attempt to get a wider picture, regulator Ofcom tests the speed of mobile networks in the same way it provides independent speed tests of fixed-line broadband providers, and it publishes its results bi-annually. You can contribute to the data collected in these reports with Ofcom’s coverage checker app.

Network-analysis firm RootMetrics similarly publishes regular reports on nationwide mobile speed tests and network coverage and during the second half of 2016, reported in February this year, EE stormed the board. Three and Vodafone vied for second place in different categories, and O2 came last in them all. The categories include overall, reliability, speed, data, call and text. The scores are below:

Best 4G network: Overall

EE: 93.1%
Three: 89.2%
Vodafone: 86.2%
O2: 81.5%

Best 4G network: Reliability

EE: 94.5%
Three: 92.8%
Vodafone: 87.1%
O2: 82.7%

Best 4G network: Speed

EE: 90.7%
Vodafone: 83.1%
Three: 81.1%
O2: 78.2%

Best 4G network: Data

EE: 94.2%
Three: 90.5%
Vodafone: 85.2%
O2: 81.3%

Best 4G network: Call

EE: 90.9%
Three: 86.9%
Vodafone: 86.7%
O2: 80.1%

Best 4G network: Text

EE: 97.1%
Three: 95.1%
Vodafone: 94.6%
O2: 93.9%

RootMetrics’ speed tests are collated from hundreds of thousands of “off-the-shelf” phones used during the second half of 2016. 

As you can see, EE is consistently on top or near the top regardless of whose figures you use. 

Vodafone has previously questioned RootMetrics’ testing methodology, claiming its tests are carried out in “an inconsistent manner”. These accusations were denied by RootMetrics, which insisted that it “measured the network as it performed – the same way a consumer would experience it”.

Analysts have also claimed that the amount of spectrum EE has been able to allocate to 4G has given it a performance edge over its rivals. “The capacity EE has, what it’s done with the double speed, and the ability to reallocate more of the 1,800MHz band towards 4G services, has given it an advantage,” said CCS Insight’s network operator specialist Kester Mann shortly after the network launched. “EE is certainly leading in terms of speed.”

Which network has the best 4G coverage?

There’s an element of “how long’s a piece of string” to this question, because 4G coverage varies depending on location. However, there are crucial differences in the coverage and 4G spectrum used by the networks that could sway your decision if you’re in the fortunate position of having a choice of networks serving your home or office.

When Ofcom held its 4G auction in 2013, it sold off spectrum in two different frequency bands, 800MHz and 2.6GHz. 800MHz is the old terrestrial television band that was freed up after the digital switchover, and is theoretically better for carrying data over long distancesin rural areas; 2.6GHz is better at delivering faster speeds over shorter distances, making it better suited for use in urban areas.

There’s a third band of spectrum used to deliver 4G data, 1.8GHz, which offers a middle ground between speed and range.

Separately, Ofcom agreed to let the mobile networks employ the bands they currently use for 2G/3G services – the 900MHz, 1.8GHz and 2.1GHz bands – for 4G. So there are significant differences in the spectrum each of the UK’s networks are using and the coverage they’re offering.

4G has grown to 90% coverage in the UK over the past four years and all major networks offer 4G coverage.

EE covers around 80% of the UK and 99% of the UK population, while also providing the infrastructure data for Virgin Media and Life Mobile. To check the coverage of EE, as well as other networks, you can use Mobiles.co.uk coverage map, powered by OpenSignal.

Green patches represent areas where the signal is stronger, red areas are weaker.  

Alternatively, RootMetrics’ coverage map reveals how coverage on individual networks has grown over the past year.

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