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The UK's best mobile networks revealed: mobile broadband group test

What's the best mobile network in the UK?

What's the best mobile network?

In association with Broadband Genie, we take to the road to discover which is the best mobile network for mobile broadband. You might be surprised by our results. For all your broadband needs visit Broadband Advisor.

Being able to access the internet wherever you can take your laptop, smartphone or tablet is a wonder of our age. Or that's the theory. In practice mobile internet is a mixed bag. You may be able to stream live TV from your phone at the bus stop, but half a mile down the road is a dead spot. And little irritates quite as much as having to move to the kitchen or even hang outside a window to get a better signal when you need to download a big file. A first-world problem maybe, but digital is an all-or-nothing proposition, and if you are paying for mobile internet the least you can expect is a robust connection. See all Broadband tips.

Not all mobile networks are equal. They differ in the areas they cover and the way that they perform in general. That's why we decided to put mobile broadband in the dock, in our biggest ever mobile web test. Alongside our friends at Broadband Genie, we asked all the major mobile broadband providers to lend us a dongle. Then we hit the road: the rail road in this case.

Over the course of two days we travelled the length of the country, simultaneously testing eight different mobile networks on a variety of connectivity disciplines. We can't tell you which mobile network will work best in your home, but we can with confidence tell you which networks perform best overall. You can read Broadband Genie's take on this with their best mobile broadband winners and best mobile broadband analysis pieces. (Check out our Best Mobile Broadband Deals.)

Mobile Broadband Road Trip, with Broadband Genie:

The UK's best mobile networks revealed: mobile broadband group test

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Best mobile broadband: the contenders, and how we tested

The eight mobile broadband providers who agreed to take part in our test were, in no particular order, Vodafone, Three, T-Mobile, EE, Samba, O2, Virgin and Globalgig. Both Globalgig and Samba are third-party dongles that use the Three network, and T-Mobile is closely related to EE (the third partner in that triumvirate is Orange, which declined to take part in the test).

We asked each vendor to provide us with a dongle. Vodafone sent us the Huawei K3772-Z (branded as the Vodafone K3772), Three the Huawei E3256 (Three E3256 Premium Dongle), and T-Mobile the Huawei E583C (T-Mobile Wireless Pointer). EE gave us access via a Huawei E392, Samba the ZTE MF190, O2 an Alcatel X230D, Virgin the Alcatel X230S and Globalgig the ZTE AC30. We mention the hardware here because although we were primarily testing the networks as they would work on your smartphone, the dongle model will have some impact. Three's version supports DC-HSDPA for example.

The differing hardware might also explain some of the discrepancies between mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and their host networks. In the UK, for instance, EE provides the connectivity to Virgin Mobile. But, as you'll see from the test, EE performs much better than Virgin. In part that may be the hardware, and it may also reflect a certain second-class status on the network for Virgin users.

Over the course of two days we took a train from London to Edinburgh and back, carrying out 37 tests along the way. Each network was tested by a dedicated individual, so that each test took place at exactly the same time, in exactly the same location.

We carried out a variety of tests that fall into three categories: speed tests, video tests, and downloads and uploads. For each test a maximum time was allowed.

Speed tests are straightforward: at the appointed time each connection was put through Broadband Genie's own speed test, and the results recorded. For the video tests we streamed a range of clips from a variety of sources, recording what point in the clip each connection allowed the viewer to reach, if they allowed them to play at all. And for downloads and uploads each network was used to down- or upload a specified file to or from the web. In each case we recorded whether the network succeeded or failed, and if the latter how far it got.

Best mobile broadband: Speed tests

The star of the show here was EE, with average download speeds of 3.43Mbps and upload speeds of 1.79Mbps. EE completed 11 of our 13 speed tests. That may not sound impressive, but when you consider that the tests took place on a fast-moving train all over the country it is a great result. EE's best figures were 7.11Mbps down and 8.11Mbps up.

The total average for all eight networks was 1.24Mbps down, and 0.72Mbps up. Not great, but usable. Mobile broadband has come a long way.

Three completed 12 of the 13 speed tests in the time allowed, and it managed respectable average figures of 1.87Mbps down and 0.94Mbps up. Those averages were bettered only by EE. The only other networks that managed average download speeds in excess of 1Mbps were T-Mobile and O2.
T-Mobile – EE's network partner – completed nine of the 13 tests with average speeds of 1.31Mbps down and 0.32Mbps up. O2 completed seven tests with average scores of 1.2- and 0.4Mbps.

Of the other major networks Vodafone and Virgin Mobile fared particularly badly. Virgin managed average speeds of just 0.26Mbps down and 0.51Mbps up, but completed only two of our 13 tests. Vodafone was similarly afflicted, completing three tests for figures of just 0.19- and 0.23Mbps.

Globalgig and Samba both performed reasonably, although not as well as the Three network they use. Globalgig, which is designed to work in multiple countries, completed 10 of the 13 tests for average scores of 0.76Mbps down and 0.84Mbps up. Samba, which offers free, ad-supported mobile broadband, completed seven tests and scored 0.97Mbps down and 0.74Mbps up.

Best mobile broadband: Video tests

None of the networks could complete even half of the video tests we set. It is only fair to point out that the challenge could hardly have been greater for mobile connectivity, but results were disappointing. There's work to be done on watching video on the move.

Once again EE performed well, streaming all of five of the 11 videos in the short time allowed, and showing more than half of three more. EE, Three, T-Mobile and Globalgig all managed to show at least some of each video we tried to watch.

The Three network managed to show four of the 11 videos in full, and more than half of two others. Intriguingly, Globalgig (which uses Three's network) did even better, showing five videos in their entirety and more than half of a further two. T-Mobile enjoyed some of its stablemate EE's reflective glory, showing the full span of four videos and half of another.

Of those that couldn't play at least some of all the videos Samba turned in the most creditable performance. Hardly surprising, given that it is on the Three network. Samba streamed three videos all the way through, and more than half of another one.

There was bad news for the two Vs again, however, as Virgin Mobile and Vodafone could manage to show only a single video clip each. Neither managed more than half of any of the other 10 videos, either. But both still outperformed O2, which failed to show even half of a single video.

Best mobile broadband: Downloads and uploads

Prepare to be shocked: EE was not the best network for downloads and uploads. In this test Three just managed to pip EE, managing to down- or upload 10 out of the 11 files in our tests. Indeed, Three only just missed out on a perfect score: the 11th file was nearly half way to being downloaded when the time was up. EE did perform well, however, managing a healthy nine out of 11. It narrowly pipped its stablemate T-Mobile (eight) and the Three-running Globalgig (seven). The other commendable result was the other Three user Samba, which managed to complete six of the 11 down- and upload tasks.

Vodafone and Virgin Mobile suffered, however, alongside O2. Vodafone managed to download only two files and uploaded none, but even that paltry performance was better than O2 and Virgin, both of which could only download a single file.

Best mobile broadband: Conclusion

Three was our top performer, with 30 out of a possible 37 tests completed (a success rate of 81 percent). EE was close behind, ticking off 27 tests (72 percent). And those networks are clearly the best: Globalgig completed 24 tests for a 64 percent success rate, and T-Mobile was successful 56 percent of the time, completing 21 tests.

Using the other Three device, from Samba, we could complete 17 percent of tests, a 45 percent success rate.

At the bottom end of the scale was Virgin. On that network we could complete only five of the 37 tests (13 percent). Marginally better was Vodafone, with seven completed tests (18 percent). Which leaves us in the could-do-better corner with O2 (nine tests, 24 percent).

Overall, then, it is a close-run thing between Three and EE for the title of best mobile broadband network. Three completed more tests and was better on downloads and uploads. But EE topped the charts for video and speed tests, and its speed-test results in particular left the rest of the field trailing a long way behind. Given the relatively good performance of the other Three network users Globalgig and Samba, we can safely say that Three is a great mobile network. But so is EE – and if you need the fastest speeds that's the network for you.

T-Mobile performed well but is very much second-best in its own camp, trailing behind EE. The news for Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and O2 is less good. In our tests they were consistently outperformed in all areas.

Best mobile broadband: results

Our mobile-broadband road test took us from London Kings Cross through Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, Alnwick, Berwick Upon Tweed, Edinburgh and back. Along the route we ran 37 various tests on each mobile network.

  • EE
    Tests completed: 72 percent
    Average speeds: 3.3/1.79Mbps
  • O2
    Tests completed: 24 percent
    Average speeds: 1.2/0.4Mbps
  • Three
    Tests completed: 81 percent
    Average speeds: 1.87/0.94Mbps
  • T-Mobile
    Tests completed: 56 percent
    Average speeds: 1.31/0.32Mbps
  • Virgin
    Tests completed: 13 percent
    Average speeds: 0.26/0.51Mbps
  • Vodafone
    Tests completed: 18 percent
    Average speeds: 0.19/0.23Mbps
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