The best network / carrier provider in the UK, 4G/2013 edition
The best network/ carrier is often disputed in the UK, due to variations in price, coverage, and network technology, as well as data usage. 4G and 3G have definitely made this a more interesting debate since we last approached this topic. This depends solely on what you are looking for, so I am going to break it down into coverage, Data, Mobile Internet, and best of all price by carrier. The carriers that I am going to cover are the big ones; Vodafone, Three UK, Everything Everywhere (Orange & T-Mobile) and O2. But we should probably mention the smaller networks such as GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile etc.
The best for Coverage:
The best for getting a phone signal whether it be 3G or not was always traditionally Vodafone, but the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, created something that comes extremely close to the undoubted champion. In terms of getting a signal in remote areas of the UK Vodafone is still the best with Everything Everywhere trailing slightly behind. You may ask how this is surely by creating a super network the coverage should be better. The short answer is no, in fact T-Mobile and Orange were once rivals and the same size often used the same masts or points for masts as each other creating a massive overlap only slight gain can be found from this merger.
Now that EEs 3G network has been expanded though to 98% UK population coverage we can definitely say that for overall coverage, EE win this round. However if you are going to really remote areas this is subjective and you should perhaps check coverage maps.
The best for data and mobile internet.
This is a very contested category with only two networks really in the running. At the moment EE offer the best coverage of 3G, and are currently at this time of writing the only network with a commercial 4G LTE network up and running. However data costs are a lot lower on the network built for data: Three. Furthermore Three are offering 4G LTE at no added cost (when it offers it later this year), whereas the EE 4GEE are much more expensive than their 3G only counterparts. Furthermore Three offers DC-HSPDA which offers close to 4G speeds, and is the only network to do so at the moment.
In terms of data usage, Three is the only network to offer unlimited data at such as low cost. For that we applaud them, especially when 4G becomes available.
4G and the future
Unfortunately EE is the only network to offer 4G LTE at the moment in the UK, this is set to change very quickly when Vodafone, O2 and Three launch their 4G networks over the coming months. The spectrum that EE have used to get 4G so quickly is also a problem; it is of a higher frequency than the rest so offers less penetration of buildings, which leads to poorer signal inside buildings, especially in older buildings with thick walls. 4G will be at an extra cost on Vodafone, O2 and EE, but the price will remain the same on three.
If you want to use 4G right now then EE is your only choice, but if you can wait a few months the other networks might offer exciting options. For the moment this category goes to EE, but we’ll update this when other options become available later in the year. All of the networks have to provide 97% population coverage by 2017, so coverage in the future hopefully will not be problem.
Best Price: SIM Only
Three offers some amazing contracts SIM Only, one for a mere £6.90 a month for 12 months, including 500mb data, 5000 texts and 200 minutes, or a shorter 1 month rolling contract for £12.90 a month with 200minutes, 5000 texts and unlimited data. The only network to come close is GiffGaff which uses O2′s network, £12 a month for 250 minutes, unlimited texts, unlimited data for one month. GiffGaff can be very cheap if you actively help out in the community, it is community run network and it’s forums are basically its customer support. If you answer questions on the forum you receive money, and you get large discounts and money for bringing people to GiffGaff. For the average user Three is the better choice, but in areas where O2 coverage is good and you are an advanced user willing to help out with the community, GiffGaff is the better choice.
Best Price: Subsidized Phones
This depends entirely on how long you want your contract. If you’re going for a shorter 12month contract then Vodafone and EE (not T-Mobile or Orange) are your only options, 18 months for Orange, T-Mobile and O2, and of course 24months on the rest. If you are set on a 12 month plan Vodafone is the best bet at the moment unless you want to pay the extra price for 4GEE plans. For 18months there are great deals available from Phones4U and Carphone Warehouse for non-4G EE plans, and Three is the leader for 24 months commitments.
If you find the right SIM-Only plan it is often cheaper to buy the phone outright, however this is not practical on some networks, EE and Vodafone (their SIM-Only plans are expensive).
In the USA, this is a major deal-breaker on some networks, with T-Mobile and Sprint only just getting the iPhone, Verizon not offering the HTC One, and AT&T lacking on the Motorola front. However in the UK every phone is available on every network somewhere. Often phones not sold through some networks are available through Carphone Warehouse or Phones4u, there are some exclusives though but not any worth talking about.
What is the best overall network? Right now if money is no object a 4GEE plan is best in every way, signal and coverage, data speeds. wait a few months and this will change. If you want shorter contracts look into SIM-Only, and have a look at deals offered by third party sellers. For me it has to be EE (Orange) in my case. Where I live there is no O2 coverage, 3G/HSPDA is available on EE and Three but only just. This means that EE is the best option, three has no 2G network to rely on and my previous favourite has no 3G at all. Furthermore I got a great deal through Phones4U on my latest phone; HTC One, 200 mins, unlimited texts, 1GB data £36 a month with nothing up front, and for 18 months! However this varies.
Here’s my final advice:
- Live in a populated area and want lots of data: Three UK
- Live in a relatively rural area, with signal on most networks: Orange or T-Mobile EE plans
- Very rural area, not much signal, most likely Vodafone 2G, but check coverage maps.
- Want 4G right now? EE’s 4GEE plans are your only options.