What's the UK's best phone network in 2016? Read on to find out the pros and cons as we compare the best mobile networks. (See also: laptop vs smartphone vs tablet)
Choosing a smartphone or tablet is just the start. In this world of constant connectivity the quality and speed of your chosen network is critical to your ability to work and play on the hoof. But which mobile network is best? As friends and colleagues and you will hear multiple answers. Connectivity can vary from locale to locale, and day to day. Visit the websites of all the major players and they will tell you that they have great coverage, everywhere. The truth is more nuanced. Also see: Best MiFi 2016.
Best mobile network UK: It's definitely not Vodafone
In June 2016 Vodafone was called into question by Ofcom, the regulator, for failing to deal with customer complaints. Vodafone has been accused of not having adequate complaints procedures in place. Not just that, but it has also been uncovered that these deficiencies extent to affect the billing of, potentially, all its 20 million customers. This is in the wake of it changing its billing platform last year, according to moneysavingexpert.com.
Vodafone could in theory be fined 10% of its turnover. However this is unlikely to happen and falls incredibly short of compensating the millions of people who have been affected by its poor service. If you're thinking of starting a new phone contract any time soon, our advice is to hands down not even consider going with Vodafone.
This is however in the wake of Vodafone announcing its 30 day guarantee on all new contracts - if anyone on contract decides to leave the network within the first 30 days of joining then that's all fin. Just a shame that in that time you won't be able to see if they've billed you properly or not. Still, it's a good deal on the surface, especially when coupled with its 2 month unlimited data offer.
You'll also like: Best SIM-only deals.
Best mobile network UK: uSwitch Awards 2016
In February, uSwitch unveiled the winners of its Mobile Awards 2016, voted for by more than 5,000 consumers and a judging panel of journalists.
Read on to discover how EE, Three, O2, Vodafone, Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile and Virgin fared in its various test categories.
Bookmark now: Black Friday deals 2016
Best Mobile Network of the Year 2016
Best Pay Monthly Network 2016
Best PAYG Network 2016
Best SIM-only Network 2016
Best for Roaming 2016
Best Customer Experience 2016
Best for Data 2016
Best Network Coverage 2016
Network Customer Service 2016
Best Value Pay Monthly 2016
Best Value SIM Only 2016
Fastest Mobile Network powered by RootMetrics 2016
Best mobile network UK: Ofcom research 2016
On 31 March, Ofcom published its research into the performance of the UK's big four networks: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The research was carried out between November and December of 2015 in five UK cities: Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and Norwich.
The researched focused on two key metrics: download speed and web browsing performance.
Overall, EE came out on top when it comes to both web browsing speed and download speed, with an average page load speed of five seconds, a 98% successful loading rate, 20Mbit/s average download speed and 92% speeds over 2Mbit/s.
If you live in Norwich, however, Three managed to take the top spot as the fastest network there.
Below is the full breakdown of the overall results, and you can find out more in Ofcom's report here.
In addition to Ofcom's performance research, the organisation has also shared data on the volume of customer complaints it received against major mobile network providers.
Tesco Mobile has the least complaints per 100,000 customers, but it is likely to have the least customers too so it's tricky to make any solid conclusions from the report.
We can see, however, that complaints against Vodafone have shot up drastically since the middle of 2015, after customers reported incorrect billing.
Having said that, in April 2016 Vodafone introduced a unique 30 day network guarantee. This allows all new and upgrading customers 30 days to cancel their contract from the start date. This is good if you want to try how Vodafone is for coverage in your area, or if the deal you have picked is right for you.
This also applies to small businesses buying from Vodafone, and to all its bundles and devices. You can look for more information here.
Podcast discussion: What's the UK's best mobile network?
Below you can read our own in-depth mobile network testing conducted with Broadband Genie in 2014.
Best mobile broadband 2014
In the interests of providing excellent independent data, each year we team up with Broadband Genie and set out to test mobile broadband under real-world conditions over most of the length of the UK. We traveled from London to Edinburgh to discover which 3G and 4G networks are best for speed, best for reliability. Read more at Broadband Genie's 2014 Road Trip site.
We tested 3G- and 4G mobile broadband on the four main networks with a selection of tasks designed to emulate actual usage and push performance to the limit. This is not a universal test of every connection everywhere in the country, but a real-world sample of how all the major networks perform over a two-day period, on the move, the length of the east coast mainline. Your experiences may differ, and we'd be delighted to hear about them in the comments below. (See also: The 35 best smartphones: The best phones you can buy in 2014.)
UK's best 3G- and 4G networks of 2014: the contenders, and how we tested
The major mobile broadband providers who agreed to take part in our test were 3, EE, O2, Vodafone. EE incorporates Orange and T-Mobile, so we were testing all of the UK's nationally available mobile networks.
We asked each vendor to provide us with a 3G and a 4G dongle, and over the course of two days we took a train from London to Edinburgh and back, carrying out 39 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. (See also: Best SIM-only deals.)
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.
Choosing a smartphone or tablet is just the start. In this world of constant connectivity the quality and speed of your chosen network is critical to your ability to work and play on the hoof. But which mobile network is best? As friends and colleagues and you will hear multiple answers. Connectivity can vary from locale to locale, and day to day. Visit the websites of all the major players and they will tell you that they have great coverage, everywhere. The truth is more nuanced.
UK's best mobile network of 2014
Three is the UK's best mobile network of 2014. Both on 3G and 4G Three completed more tests than did any other network. Three was the fastest network with excellent average and peak scores in our speed tests up and down the country.
Runner up to Three in the UK's best mobile network of 2014 category was EE. EE wasn't quite as reliable as was Three as we traversed the country at high speed, but it completed more tests than did any of the other providers. Moreover, as we shall see, EE is a fast network.
UK's fastest 3G and 4G network 2014
Speed isn't everything, of course. But it is almost everything. Being able to surf, download and upload at speed is the mobile connectivity dream. In total we carried out 17 speed tests run across both legs of the route, at speed and at many various locations.
Three is the UK's fastest mobile network, on 4G and 3G. Its 4G dongle managed an average download of 6.19Mb and an upload speed of 1.54Mb, and gave us the single fastest speed test result of the entire Road Trip with a rapid 19.53Mb. 3G service was also extremely impressive thanks to an average 4.48Mb down and 1.4Mb. That's not only faster than every other 3G network but quicker than almost all the rival 4G networks, with only Vodafone 4G beating it on average upload speed. Three 3G also recorded the second fastest top speed (for both 3G and 4G) of 15.41Mb.
EE was once again the runner up, being the second fastest 3G and 4G network in the UK. EE's tested averages of 3.99Mb/0.62Mb for 4G and 2.62Mb/0.91Mb on 3G were nicel consistent and peaked at 7.64Mb on 3G and 12.34Mb for 4G.
O2 isn't far behind EE. O2 4G averaged 4.13Mb up and 0.89Mb down, while O2 3G got 2.03Mb/1.24Mb. In our tests we found that O2's peak speeds were slightly lower (11.83Mb was the best on 4G, 4.27Mb for 3G). Unfortunately coverage issues adversely affected O2's speed scores. We could complete only seven of the 17 speed scores. So although it is possible O2 is faster than our results show, you need to be able to get online in the first place to measure speed.
Last but not least of the UK's best 3G- and 4G networks is Vodafone. Vodafone 4G successfully completed eight speed tests for averages of 3.2/1.49Mb, with a top download of 7.92Mb and the overall fastest upload of 7.23Mb. Not bad at all on 4G, then, Vodafone is behind on 3G. Average scores of 1.21Mb download and 0.66Mb upload are disappointing. Just two successful speed tests is poor.
The average speed of all networks this year was 3.48Mb download and 1.09Mb upload, that's a big improvement on the average 1.24/0.72Mb of 2013.
UK's best 3G and 4G network coverage 2014
We measure coverage and reliability based on how many of the download, upload and video-streaming tests that each network completed as we traveled the country for two days. Three came out on top, completing 90 percent of all tests. A staggering result when you consider that most of the time we were traveling through rural areas at speed. We also found a consistent 90 percent completion across both Three 3G and 4G dongles.
EE was once again our runner up, completing a decent total of 73 percent of the tests. EE 4G completed 79 perecent. EE 3G enjoyed slightly less coverage with a 67 percent success rate. A notable difference between the two is that on tests where both services failed EE 4G almost always came closer to finishing thanks to its faster speed.
We then have a big drop to O2 and Vodafone. O2 completed just 18 out of a possible 78 tasks. There were no significant differences between 3G and 4G, both scored 23 percent and experienced long periods with no connectivity at the same time.
Down at the bottom is Vodafone with a disappointing 17 percent completion rate. Vodafone 3G was only able to finish four of 38 tasks. Vodafone 4G was marginally more successful with 23 percent.
Both O2 and Vodafone struggled outside of heavily populated areas such as London and Edinburgh.
UK's best 3G network 2014
Of the four 3G networks on test Three demonstrated the best performance. We recorded an outstanding top download speed of 15.41Mb, and average speeds were 4.48Mb down and 1.4Mb up. Three maintained a connection throughout much of the journey to complete 90 percent of all the tests. A great 3G network.
EE was good but not quite as good, getting a reasonable average download speed of 2.62Mb and a less impressive 0.91Mb average upload. EE also had the second fastest 3G result of 7.64Mb. Completing 67 percent of tests on 3G is a decent result too.
The 3G O2 dongle gave a strong performance with an average 2.03/1.24Mb and peak download of 4.27Mb. Again reliability was an issue, with only nine out of 39 tests successful. But at least O2 was better than Vodafone 3G. Voda managed to complete just 10 percent of all the tasks. The average speed was a meagre 1.21Mb down and 0.66Mb up with a top speed of just 1.95Mb down.
UK's best 4G network 2014
Guess what: Three was the best 4G network, too. It completed 90 percent of tests, with average speed test results of 6.19Mb/1.54Mb. The Three 4G ]top speed of 19.53Mb was also the single fastest result recorded, although its peak upload of 2.89Mb was nothing special.
EE was not able to match Three on speed or coverage, but still performed well. A success rate of 79 percent in tests was good, as was an average download time 3.99Mb. The 0.62Mb average upload was disappointing, but it did manage a peak downstream rate of 12.34Mb.
O2 4G did beat EE in average speeds as our speed testing recorded 4.13Mb download and 0.89Mb upload. It also came close on top speeds with 11.83Mb download. Unfortunately with only a 23 percent test completion rate it appears O2’s network lacks the reach of EE. Vodafone 4G made up for the weak results of the 3G service by hitting an average 3.2Mb down / 1.49Mb up and peak speeds of 7.92Mb/7.23Mb, which was the fastest upload speed overall. Unfortunately it struggled to hold onto a signal and managed just 23 percent of the 39 tasks. (See also: The 25 best tablets of 2014: What's the best tablet in the UK right now?)