Mobile Phone Networks: a simple guide

If you live in an area where mobile phone coverage isn’t great, you may be frustrated with your mobile network provider. So, it’s always good to look around at the other providers, both big and small, to check coverage in your area and tariffs to suit your budget.



If you live in an area where mobile phone coverage isn’t great, you may be frustrated with your mobile network provider. So, it’s always good to look around at the other providers, both big and small, to check coverage in your area and tariffs to suit your budget.



Holly Niblett
From the Digital team
minute read
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Posted 14 MAY 2020

What’s a mobile network operator? (MNO)

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

Who are the biggest UK mobile networks?

The UK’s four largest mobile networks include EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. These 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, by providing them with access to their wider network. This is often referred to as piggybacking.

What is piggybacking?

‘Piggybacking’ is a term used to describe the way that mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) cover their customers. Smaller mobile networks don’t typically have their own mobile networks, so they instead rent access to the networks supplied by the larger providers.

What’s a mobile virtual network operator? (MVNO)

MVNOs are smaller operators that rent infrastructure, buy space from or piggyback one of the four main network providers.

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

It’s often worth knowing who the MVNO is piggybacking services from. If you know you’ve a bad signal or data speeds from one provider, then there’s no point signing up with an MVNO who shares their network.

Which mobile providers are powered by other mobile networks?

Which mobile providers power GiffGaff, Sky & Tesco Mobile?

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

Main provider MVNO renting space

Major players:  

  • ASDA Mobile
  • BT Mobile
  • The Phone Co-op
  • Virgin Mobile


  • Axis Mobile
  • Delight Mobile
  • Natterbox
  • Plusnet Mobile
  • Vectone Mobile

Major players:  

  • Giffgaff
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Sky Mobile  


  • LycaMobile
  • TalkTalk Mobile

Major players:  

  • iD Mobile  
  • The People's Operator


  • Globalgig
  • Smarty

Major players:  

  • Voxi
  • TalkTalk Mobile  


  • Cortel Telephone
  • Glemnet
  • Highnet
  • Lebara Mobile
  • Ownfone
  • Zest4 Mobile

Which mobile phone network has the best coverage?

The mobile phone networks have created a much more level playing field when it comes to 4G coverage across the UK. All of the major mobile networks have achieved almost complete coverage, with EE and Three only slightly ahead.

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

Of course, with 5G starting to roll out in 2019, the next coverage race has begun. EE were the first to launch 5G in the UK, and have made a strong start in getting towns and cities connected with the fastest speeds.

Mobile network 5G enabled towns and cities
EE 58
Three 39
Vodafone 26
O2 21

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 provide a consistent level of customer service and Tesco Mobile came out best for the MVNO provider group.

Which is the best phone network?

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

Ofcom runs reports on the main aspects of mobile providers’ services and for 2018 EE performed well for coverage, data speeds and what extras it offers its customers directly. However, all four of the major phone networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) scored a minimum of 92% for general customer satisfaction.

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 the mobile networks currently offering 5G in select locations:

  • BT
  • EE
  • O2
  • Sky
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Three
  • Vodafone
  • Voxi

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, so there shouldn’t be too much to grumble about. 

The main area where you might be at a disadvantage when using a smaller provider is that you won’t 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

Now you know more about mobile phone networks, you might want to switch provider.

To compare deals, have an idea of what you are looking for from a mobile provider price plan – how many calls you make, texts you send or how much data you would likely use – all to make sure that the best-fit price plan can be found for you.

Some things to consider when comparing mobile providers include:

  • Cost – think about how much data, call minutes and texts you use a month. 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, to two-year plans. You normally find slightly better deals for longer contracts, but if flexibility is important to you, it can be worth the higher price.
  • Coverage – the big four mobile phone networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) each have approx. 99% national coverage. If you’re looking at a smaller provider, consider a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), who uses the network of a larger provider.
  • Additional benefits and extras – some mobile providers will offer benefits such as data rollover, free access to media streaming or even priority access to events.

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

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.

SIM-only contracts start from as little as £5 a month. Selected deals may also include free access to the BT Sport app.


Part of the BT Group, EE was formed after combining previous mobile networks Orange and T-Mobile. It is the largest mobile network in the UK, and provides coverage for over 99% of the country. They were 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. SIM-only 12-month contracts start from only £13 a month, while a contract phone deal can start from £17 a month.

EE has received several awards, including the UK’s best network, as judged by RootMetrics® for more than five consecutive years. It was also awarded the UK’s fastest and most reliable network awards.

Rewards with EE have included months of free access to a range of media apps, such as BT Sport, Amazon Prime Video and Apple Music.


Running on O2’s existing network, which covers approximately 99% of the UK, Giffgaff is now one of the country’s larger mobile operators, outside of the big four. They offer a variety of services, including buying phones outright or on a monthly contract, as well as SIM-only deals, with monthly rolling plans available. SIM-only plans start from as little as £6 a month.

Giffgaff also offer refurbished, pre-owned phones, that can help you save money. All of these come with a 12-month warranty.

Giffgaff has received a number of rewards, including uSwitch’s ‘Network of the Year 2019’, despite not having a customer service call centre. Although, you can ask an online agent for support.

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 384kbps between 8am and midnight.

iD Mobile

Powered by Three’s network, iD Mobile receives approximately 99% coverage across the UK.

iD Mobile specialises in flexible, 30-day SIM-only plans, which start from as little as £4 a month. They also benefit from a data rollover perk, which allows you to keep any unused data for the next month, and so on. They also offer a variety of pay monthly phone contracts, which start from £8.99 a month, through their parent company, Carphone Warehouse.

All iD Mobile plans offer a bill capping feature, which allows you to stop yourself from going over your own limit. This can be changed by you at any time. On selected handset plans, you can also get a ‘Data Boost’ which offers a backup pot of mobile data to use, if you ever need to exceed your normal limit. ‘Data Boost’ is valid for 36 months, meaning you can use it as and when you need it, during that period.


With no long contracts to tie you down, Lebara offers flexible, 30-day rolling SIM-only plans that start from only £3.99 a month.

With a Lebara phone plan, you can also add ‘Bolt Ons’, which allow you to quickly top up your account with extra data or phone minutes. This allows you to take control and remain 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.


Second only to EE in terms of customer numbers, O2 is one of the UK’s ‘big four’ mobile phone networks, with coverage of 99% of the UK.

O2 are also among the first UK networks to roll out 5G capability, leading them to winning uSwitch’s ‘Best Network Coverage’ award for 2020.

A variety of mobile plans are available, including pay as you go, SIM only and contract phone deals. SIM-only deals start from £10 a month, while a contracted phone is available from £17 a month.

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

O2 have also offered customers, on eligible new plans, six months free access to streaming service Disney+.


With its SIM-only deals starting from just £6 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 extra discounts or data boosts.

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, with a selection of phone models available from a low price of just £12 a month. If you’re happy with the phone you’re using now, SIM-only deals start from as little as £6 a month, on a 12-month contract.

Key benefits to Sky Mobile customers include data rollover, allowing you to save any unused data for later, 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 mobile

Smarty mobile offers SIM-only deals, starting from just £6 a month. These are rolling monthly deals, which means you can stay flexible and switch or cancel when you need to. Huge data deals of 100GB a month have been available for as little as £15 a month.

One of Smarty’s bonuses allows you to get money back on unused data. Depending on your plan, you can get up to £3 back every month, simply for giving back the data you didn’t end up needing.

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


Talkmobile offers both 12-month and rolling monthly SIM-only phone deals. 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.

The mobile network has also offered limited time deals, when you can receive half-price plans for the first few months.

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 SIM-only contracts, as well as contract phone deals. Both start from just £7.50 a month, with packages and phone models varying.

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

Tesco Mobile also offers a variety of monthly perks, which can be swapped out each month to suit whatever it is you need. These range from extra data, more call minutes, extra Tesco Clubcard points, and even money off your phone bill.

Separating itself from most other phone networks, Tesco Mobile doesn’t offer unlimited minutes and calls on its plans. Instead, they offer a variety of capped plans, although these can run up to very high numbers.

Three (3)

Three is among the UK’s ‘big four’ mobile networks, and is also among the most widespread 5G networks in the country.

They specialise in ‘all you can eat’ data plans, which mean you can browse online as much as you’d like. If not on an unlimited data plan, the ‘go binge’ feature allows selected plans to stream content from a range of apps, including Netflix and Apple Music, as much as they like, without eating into their data limit. Because of this, they were awarded “best network for data” by techradar in 2019.

Three offer a mix of pay as you go, SIM only and contract phone deals. SIM-only deals start at £5, while contract phones are available from £13. Three is known for offering bundles, adding free tech gifts to eligible deals.

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile offer 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, too.

SIM-only plans start from just £6 a month, on a 12-month contract, while you can get a phone deal from just £13 a month, over two years.

Benefits to Virgin Mobile customers include flexible plans, allowing you to tailor your package, with either, each month. They also offer data rollover plans, so you can hang on to anything you don’t use up, and data used on a number of messaging apps like Whatsapp and Messenger won’t eat into your normal data plan.

By using EE’s mobile network, Virgin Mobile customers can expect 4G coverage across more than 99% of the UK.


The last of the UK’s ‘big four’ networks, Vodafone offers coverage across 99% of the UK. They also have enabled 5G in a number of locations across the UK.

Vodafone offer a combination of pay as you go, SIM only and contract phone deals. SIM-only deals are available from only £6 a month, on a 12-month contract, while you can get a phone deal from £17 a month, over two years.

Their ‘VeryMe’ rewards scheme also offers 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.

Vodafone have won several awards, including nPerf’s “No.1 Mobile Network Performance 2019”, as well as uSwitch’s “Best SIM-only Network” for 2020.


Voxi is a mobile network that promises “endless social media”. Their plans offer sizeable data allowances, including unlimited data, but you won’t eat into any of that while using selected social media apps. These include Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

You can get a rolling-month contract for just £10 a month, while you can get a phone contract for £17 a month.

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

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