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Mobile phone networks: a simple guide

Local mobile phone coverage not great? Fed up with your current supplier or desperate to see if you can switch to 5G? It’s always good to look at other mobile networks, big and small, to check coverage in your area and find deals to suit your budget.

 

 

Local mobile phone coverage not great? Fed up with your current supplier or desperate to see if you can switch to 5G? It’s always good to look at other mobile networks, big and small, to check coverage in your area and find deals to suit your budget.

 

 

Written by
Sajni Shah
Consumer expert on utilities and money
Last Updated
11 JANUARY 2024
13 min read
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What’s a mobile network operator? (MNO)

Mobile network operators are companies that provide your mobile phone services. They provide the network that enables you to send and receive calls and texts, and access the internet. In the UK there are four main mobile network operators.

Who are the biggest UK mobile networks?

The UK’s largest mobile networks include:

  • EE
  • O2
  • Three
  • Vodafone.

These four phone networks supply the most customers and have the widest coverage in the country. They also support many of the smaller mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) by providing them with access to their wider network. This is often referred to as piggybacking.

What’s a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)? And what is piggybacking?

MVNOs are smaller mobile network operators that typically don’t have their own mobile network. Instead, they rent access to the networks and infrastructure provided by one of the four main network providers. These MVNOs are, in effect, piggybacking one of the main network providers to provide mobile service for their customers.

This means that if you subscribe to one of these MVNOs, you’ll get the same coverage as you would with the main operator.

It’s usually worth knowing who the MVNO is piggybacking services from. If you have a bad signal or slow data speeds from one provider, there’s no point signing up with an MVNO who shares the same network.

Which mobile providers are powered by other mobile networks?

Giffgaff, Sky and Tesco are all large mobile plan providers, but none of them operate their own networks. These three are all examples of MVNOs who rent the services of even larger networks. Giffgaff, Sky and Tesco Mobile are all powered by O2.

See who some of the most popular networks are powered by:

Main provider MVNO renting space
EE

Major networks:  

  •  BT Mobile
  •  The Phone Co-op

Smaller networks: 

  •  Plusnet Mobile
  •  Utility Warehouse
  •  Vectone Mobile 
O2

Major networks:

  • Gifgaff
  • Virgin Mobile
  • Tesco Mobile 
  • Sky Mobile  

Smaller networks:  

  •  Lycamobile
  •  Glemnet (business mobile)
Three

Major networks:  

  •  iD Mobile 

Smaller networks:  

  •  Smarty
  •  Superdrug Mobile
Vodafone

Major networks:  

  • Voxi
  • Asda Mobile  

Smaller Networks

  • Talkmobile
  • Glemnet (business mobile)
  • Lebara Mobile

Which mobile phone network has the best coverage? 

It depends on how you define coverage. Some networks measure coverage by percentage of the population covered, while some organisations look at how much of the UK landmass gets a signal. Essentially, they don’t all measure coverage in the same way.

Mobile phone networks are now delivering a much more level playing field when it comes to 4G coverage across the UK. All the major mobile networks have achieved almost complete coverage, aside from very rural areas.

But there is hope for areas with poor or no signal. In March 2020, the government agreed with the four largest mobile operators that they’d deliver a ‘Shared Rural Network’, with grant funding. Each mobile operator has agreed to deliver reliable 4G mobile broadband to 95% of the UK’s landmass by early 2027, subject to certain conditions.

Before you sign up to a network, use Ofcom’s mobile coverage checker to make sure you’ll receive a mobile signal in all the places where you’ll need it. Don’t forget to check both indoor and outdoor signal strength.

The 4G network is well established, and the 5G network of fifth generation wireless mobile phone technology is growing rapidly. But 5G coverage across the UK isn’t currently widespread - it’s mostly concentrated around the bigger towns and cities.

Mobile network 4G coverage (% of UK population)**
EE 99%
O2 99%
Three 99.8%
Vodafone 99%

**The above percentages are based on information on the providers’ websites as of 28 November 2022.

EE was the first to launch 5G in the UK and made a strong start in getting towns and cities connected with the fastest speeds. It claims to be the first UK mobile network to bring 5G coverage to over 50% of the UK population, but O2, Three and Vodafone are fast on its heels.

Mobile Network 5G-enabled towns and cities***
EE 112
O2 750
Three 303
Vodafone 133

***The above figures are based on information on the providers’ websites and other sources as of 28 November, 2022. 5G continues to be rolled out, so coverage is likely to increase.

Which is the best mobile phone network for customer service?

Customer service is pretty even across the board, which is great news for all mobile phone users. The big four providers appear to deliver a consistent level of customer service.

Which is the best phone network?

There are too many factors to crown an overall best mobile network. Your phone model, location, network coverage and data plan are just some of the things that make up a good phone network, with each provider performing better or worse in each area.

All of the major mobile phone networks have a coverage checker tool on their website so you can check if you’ll get service where you live, and if you’ll get a 4G or 5G signal before you sign up to a deal.

Ofcom runs reports on the main aspects of mobile providers’ services. In 2022, Ofcom’s Comparing Customer Service survey reported that of the big four network providers EE, O2 and Vodafone, all scored 92% for overall customer satisfaction in 2021. Three performed the worst, with a score of 86%.

Which mobile networks provide 5G?

The launch of 5G began in the middle of 2019, with more mobile networks joining the race in 2020. Here are some of the mobile networks currently offering 5G in select locations:

  • EE
  • O2
  • Sky
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Three
  • Vodafone
  • Voxi
  • Giffgaff.

With the big four mobile operators all now offering 5G coverage, that means the MVNOs who piggyback on their network can offer 5G deals too. Remember that to take advantage of 5G speeds, you’ll need a 5G-compatible phone and you’ll need to live in an area covered by a 5G network.

Are there any disadvantages to using a smaller mobile phone network?

Not really. In terms of coverage and data speeds, you’ll get the same service as customers who buy their phone services direct from the big four networks.

Where you might be at a disadvantage when using a smaller provider is in being unable to qualify for any of the main network’s freebies and rewards – only those directly contracted to the big four will get these perks. 

How to choose a mobile provider

To compare deals, have an idea of what you’re looking for from a mobile provider price plan. Think about how many calls you make, texts you send or how much data you’d likely use. Find the price plan that best fits what you need.

Some things to consider when comparing mobile providers include:

  • Cost – data is often a big part of mobile cost, and, while it’s great to have unlimited data, if you’re only using 2GB a month, you don’t need to pay the extra for it.
  • Contract length – do you want to be tied into a long-term contract, or do you appreciate the freedom to switch when you need to? Common contract types range from rolling monthly plans, to two-year contracts. You normally find slightly better deals for longer contracts, but if flexibility is important to you, it could be worth paying the higher price.
  • Coverage – the big four mobile phone networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) each have about 99% national 4G coverage. If you’re looking at a smaller provider, consider an MVNO that uses the network of a larger provider. If you want 5G, you’ll need to check if it’s available in your area and if so, who’s offering it. 5G is not available everywhere, but the 5G network is growing all the time.
  • Additional benefits and extras – some mobile providers will offer benefits like data rollover, free access to media streaming services or even priority access to events.
  • Service – if your mobile phone is vital to you, you may want to check the latest annual performance reports from Ofcom.

Use our mobile comparison service today to compare phone providers and get a quick list of deals. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the main providers. Just remember, they’re offering special deals all the time (which are subject to change). 

EE

Part of the BT Group, EE was formed after combining previous mobile networks Orange and T-Mobile. It’s the largest mobile network in the UK and provides coverage for over 99% of the country. It was also the first network to support 5G in the UK. 
EE offers contract phones, SIM-only deals, as well as pay as you go services.

EE has received several awards, including the UK’s best network, as judged by RootMetrics, for nine consecutive years. It was also again recognised as having the UK’s most reliable network by RootMetrics in 2021 and as offering 5G in more major cities than any other UK mobile network provider .

Rewards with EE have included months of free access to a range of media apps, such as BT Sport, Netflix, Xbox Game Pass and Apple One apps, including Apple Music and Apple TV. 

O2

O2 is one of the UK’s ‘big four’ mobile phone networks, with coverage of 99% of the UK.

A variety of mobile plans are available, including pay as you go, SIM-only and contract phone deals.

O2’s ‘Priority’ offers are some of the most wide-ranging phone network benefits. O2 customers receive free trials to services, discounts and invites to competitions, as well as priority access for tickets to concerts and events at O2 venues.

O2 has also offered customers on eligible new plans six months free access to streaming service Disney+ or an Amazon service such as Prime. 

Three (3)

Three is among the UK’s ‘big four’ mobile networks and according to the Ookla Speedtest Awards, they have the UK’s fastest 5G network. Three is currently offering 5G-ready plans at no extra cost.

Three offers a mix of pay as you go, SIM-only and contract phone deals. It also offers what it calls ‘truly unlimited’ data phone plans, with no caps on speeds and no fair usage policies.

Three’s Go Roam now offers customers the opportunity to use their call, text and data allowances in 71 destinations around the world by paying a daily roaming charge.

Three also rewards customers with the Three+ app, which includes offers at brands like Uber Eats and Cineworld and access to presale festival tickets.

Vodafone

One of the UK’s ‘big four’ networks, Vodafone offers coverage across 99% of the UK. It also has enabled 5G in a number of locations across the UK and offer 5G speeds to customers at no extra cost.

Vodafone offers a combination of pay as you go, SIM-only and contract phone deals.

The ‘VeryMe’ rewards scheme provides a wide range of weekly treats and giveaways. This can include small things like a free coffee or snack, all the way up to exclusive access to event tickets.

BT Mobile

Powered by EE’s mobile network, which is a part of the BT Group, BT Mobile accesses some of the best coverage in the country – over 99% of the UK. BT Mobile also supports 5G. It offers over 5 million WiFi hotspots across the country.

BT Mobile plans are no longer available to new customers. Although BT Mobile is honouring the contracts of its existing customers, new customers are directed to its family member EE.

Giffgaff

Running on O2’s existing network, which covers approximately 99% of the UK, aside from the big four, giffgaff is now one of the country’s larger mobile operators.

Giffgaff started rolling out a 5G service in October 2020, which is now available on all its ‘goody bags’ for those with 5G-ready phones.

Giffgaff is run online by its members, there are no call centres. Instead, giffgaff has a team of what it calls ‘community helpers’ who can quickly answer customer questions online. According to Ofcom, 96% of Giffgaff customers were satisfied with the value for money of their service in 2021. Giffgaff has also received a number of network awards, including the Uswitch Mobile Network of the Year in 2021.

Giffgaff offers a variety of services, including buying phones outright or on a monthly contract, as well as SIM-only deals, with monthly rolling plans available. You can cancel whenever you want. SIM-only plans start from £10 a month for 15GB of data and unlimited UK calls and texts. At the other end of the scale, you can get an unlimited data SIM if you’re prepared to pay more.

If you want to save money on your phone, giffgaff also offers refurbished, pre-owned phones. All of these come with a 12-month warranty. If you want to upgrade, you can sell your old phone to them to get money off a new or refurbished device.

With giffgaff’s ‘Always On’ plans, it’s important to note that any usage that exceeds 80GB will be throttled at a reduced speed of 384 kilobits per second (kbps) between 8am and midnight.

Lebara

With no long contracts to tie you down, Lebara offers flexible, 30-day rolling SIM-only plans with 4G and 5G coverage that start from £5 per month. You can also get its unlimited SIM-only plan for £25 per month. It also does 12-month plans, which offer slightly better value for money.

With a Lebara phone plan, you can add ‘Bolt Ons’, which allow you to quickly top up your account with extra data or phone minutes – including international minutes in 41 countries. This allows you to be flexible if you need the occasional boost.

Powered by Vodafone, you’ll stay connected almost anywhere in the country, with around 99% of the UK covered. Lebara phone plans also include EU roaming so you can use up to 30GB of your data allowance in Europe without paying extra.

Plusnet

With its SIM-only deals starting from just £8 a month, Plusnet offers cheap and flexible plans that roll from one month to the next. There are a variety of packages available, with data limits to suit your usage. If you decide you need a top up, Plusnet offers data ‘bolt-ons’ that allow you to top up further. Plusnet broadband customers can also receive a 2GB data bonus to sweeten the deal.

Plusnet is powered by EE’s vast network, which covers over 99% of the UK, and is owned by the BT Group. 

Sky Mobile

Sky Mobile offers a selection of SIM-only and phone contract deals.

Key benefits to Sky Mobile customers include data rollover, allowing you to save any unused data for up to three years to use when you need it, as well as the ability for Sky TV customers to stream unlimited through Sky Apps, without using any data.

‘Piggybacking’ off O2’s network, Sky Mobile offers coverage across almost the entire UK.

Smarty

Smarty offers SIM-only deals. These are rolling monthly deals, so you can switch or cancel when you need to.

One of Smarty’s bonuses allows you to get money back on unused data. Depending on your plan, you could get a few pounds back every month, simply for giving back the data you didn’t end up needing.

Smarty also includes up to 12GB EU roaming data and allows you to use your unlimited calls and texts to UK numbers while abroad in certain EU countries.

Powered by Three, you can expect coverage for approximately 99% of the UK.

Talkmobile

Talkmobile offers both 12-month and rolling monthly SIM-only phone deals with 5G at no extra cost and EU roaming included. Offers start from just £5 a month, while the rolling monthly contracts offer greater flexibility, allowing you to change and upgrade your deal if you need more data, etc.

Talkmobile is powered by the Vodafone network, which means you’ll have reliable coverage that spreads across 99% of the UK.

Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile offers a combination of 12-month and 24-month SIM-only contracts, as well as contract phone deals and pay as you go SIMs. Tesco Mobile offers a variety of capped plans, as well as unlimited plans.

Powered by the O2 network, Tesco Mobile covers 99% of the UK, and offers new 5G plans.

If you also do your shopping at Tesco, you can use your Clubcard to access exclusive deals. Tesco Mobile customers can also build up Clubcard points to use to save on their shopping or collect reward vouchers to use on selected travel, entertainment, and dining experiences.

Tesco Mobile was the top-rated mobile network for overall customer satisfaction in Ofcom’s 2022 customer service report.

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile offers a wide range of services, including contract phones, SIM-only deals and even SIM-free phones. You can also get a range of tablet devices with data packages.

Benefits to Virgin Mobile customers include flexible plans, allowing you to tailor your package each month. It offers data rollover plans too, so you can hang on to anything you don’t use up. Also, data used on a number of messaging apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Messenger won’t eat into your normal data plan.

Using EE’s mobile network, Virgin Mobile customers benefit from 4G coverage across more than 99% of the UK and an expanding 5G network. Free WiFi is available at over 3.5 million hotspots too.

Voxi

Voxi promises unlimited social media data and video. Its plans offer sizeable data allowances, including unlimited data, but you won’t eat into any of that while using selected social media apps and video streaming services. These include Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Prime Video and Netflix.

Voxi offers flexible SIM-only deals as well as pay monthly contracts on new and refurbished phones.

Voxi is powered by the Vodafone network, which offers coverage across 99% of the UK. Voxi also offers a series of 5G plans, for even faster connectivity.

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Sajni Shah - Consumer expert on utilities and money

Sajni is passionate about building products, allowing Compare the Market to help you make great financial decisions. She keeps track of the latest trends and evolving markets to find new ways to help you save money.

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