What's the UK's best phone network in 2017? 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 2017.
Interestingly, according to StatCounter for the first time in October 2016 more people accessed the internet on a mobile phone or tablet than they did on a desktop or laptop PC. It recorded 51.2 percent mobile against 48.7 percent desktop, making it all the more important that you choose the best mobile network.
Latest: O2, EE & Vodafone to increase prices
Some of the UK's networks are increasing their rates as per the Retail Prices Index (RPI) rate of inflation, which means customers may see a bigger bill when it arrives in April. O2 says that it is applying a 2.6% increase, EE is applying a 2.5% increase and Vodafone is yet to decide the percentage but has confirmed that it will be doing so for customers who upgraded or joined after 6 May 2016.
Here we take a quick look at each operator and what they offer right now. They all offer 4G data services.
Best phone network 2017 UK: BT Mobile
BT is fairly new to the market, and uses its branded services on EE’s UK network. It’s a good option if you already have BT Broadband as you can apply for a £5 monthly discount on a contract with a handset.
It also offers SIM-only plans for pretty decent prices. As it’s on EE’s network (which itself is a combination of the old UK networks T-Mobile and Orange) you’re likely to get excellent coverage and good download speeds.
Best phone network 2017 UK: EE
EE is becoming a bit of a behemoth in the UK mobile market. It was bought by BT last year, but that won’t really affect your choice of network. EE’s network is comprised of the old T-Mobile and Orange frequencies, so there’s a lot of coverage nationally, with few blackspots.
Its phone contract prices can be a tad pricey, but for sheer confidence in coverage (and a big brand name to boot) it’s a solid choice.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Giffgaff
Owned by O2, Giffgaff is a little operator but one with attractive SIM-only deals. Using its owners network, it offers 2GB of data on plans from as little as £10 a month. It’s a fine choice if you already own a handset – just get a SIM and you’re good to go. However it does offer phones on a contract if you need both.
Giffgaff won consumer watchdog uSwitch’s Network of the Year 2016, so it’s clearly doing something right.
Best phone network 2017 UK: O2
O2 is a brand that has been around since 2002 in the UK and has been owned by Telefonica since 2005. Recently rival operator Three attempted to merge with O2 but the European Commission opted to block the move (this was in the wake of the BT and EE sale).
Despite this, O2 is one of the most well-known operators around. Its prices are high compared to some competitors but coverage is excellent and its pay as you go range is one of the best in the country.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Sky Mobile
The newest addition to the UK mobile market, Sky has become a ‘quad-play’ provider by adding mobile to its TV, broadband and landline offerings.
Existing Sky customers get the best deals, with free calls and texts. You just pay for how much data you want, on a plan that uses O2’s network. Non-Sky customers can pay £10 extra per month for unlimited calls and texts. If you want to use Sky for everything, now you can.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Tesco Mobile
Another user of O2’s big UK network, Tesco Mobile provides contracts, pay as you go and SIM-only deals at decent prices. Again, because it uses O2’s network coverage will be decent and often the subsidies for new handsets are good.
SIM-only prices can be under £10 per month, so if you’ve got a handset you already love it could save you a lot of money.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Three
Three is unique in that it offers reasonably priced ‘all you can eat’ data bundles. That’s right, unlimited data. If you can afford it, you can get the best handsets in the land with unlimited Internet access.
Pay as you go rates are also pretty decent if you don’t need as much data, minutes or texts. Three unsuccessfully attempted to buy O2, and the fact it didn’t is good for the mobile market. More competition means better prices for you the consumer.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Virgin Mobile
Virgin was late to the party with 4G, but has caught up and is an attractive option if you already get your broadband connection and TV from Virgin, cutting down the number of tech providers you gave to deal with.
Best phone network 2017 UK: Vodafone
Vodafone is a staple brand in the UK mobile market, and its coverage is excellent. We will say that in our own personal experience and also in the media recently it has suffered thanks to bad customer service. However, the actual network itself provides incredibly reliable fast 4G data connections and the SIM-only deals are well priced.
You may want to shop around if you feel that the contract prices are too high; they often are around the launch of a handset but if you can wait a few weeks they generally come down.
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.
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.