With more than 63 million mobile users in the UK, poor connection can hinder both leisure activities and business operations. Therefore, here is a complete guide that will explain in detail how to find the best mobile network coverage in the UK or improve the one you already have.
Overview of Mobile Phone Network Providers in the UK
We can divide mobile signal providers into two categories:
- Providers owning a proprietary network infrastructure spread across the Kingdom. It means that these companies do not rely on others’ infrastructure to provide coverage. The four principal UK operators, Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media O2, and Three, all belong to this category; they are often referred to as MNOs – Mobile Network Operators.
- Providers not owning a proprietary network. In this case, companies must rely on the infrastructure built and owned by other carriers to provide their mobile services. All the operators that do not belong to the previous category fall into this one; they are usually referred to as MVNOs – Mobile Virtual Network Operators.
This distinction may have a major impact when checking the coverage in your area with mobile coverage checker. The majority of independent checkers (such as Ofcom’s) coverage map shows data only related to the first category of providers, as the coverage of all the other operators can be attributed to the coverage of the main four network owners.
|Mobile Network Operators (MNO)||Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO)|
VOXI, Talkmobile, Asda Mobile
Virgin Media O2 Network
Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, Lycamobile, GiffGaff
BT Mobile, CMLink, Ecotalk, Plusnet Mobile,
iD Mobile, SMARTY, Superdrug Mobile, FreedomPop
Private commercial agreements regulate MVNOs’ access to the networks built and owned by MNOs. It is important to note that, despite the access granted to an MNO’s infrastructure, MNVO might fall behind in terms of speed and type of network (3G, 4G, or 5G).
How to Check the Mobile Coverage in My Area
It is possible to check the coverage for every operator through the postal code of the area in which you reside. Each provider’s website has a section where you can easily insert your postal code and check for the status and coverage of the different types of services and networks the operator provides in the area.
- Vodafone’s Network Status Checker provides an overview of its signals (from 2G to 5G) and the possibility of subscribing to network alerts.
- EE’s Coverage and Network Status Checker works in a very similar way, providing an overview of the signals per area. It also requires inserting what model of mobile device you are using, as mobile devices affect the quality of the connection and the overall user experience.
- Virgin Media O2’s Coverage Checker provides an overview of the mobile coverage connection in the selected area, by either providing a postal code or the name of the town.
- Three’s Coverage Checker shows the status of its signal only for 3G, 4G, and 5G connections. Similarly to the EE’s checker, you can further refine the research by providing the model of the mobile phone. However, contrary to the EE’s checker, submitting the mobile model is not a mandatory requirement in order to check coverage.
In addition to these four checkers, it is also possible to consult Ofcom’s website. Once you insert your postal code and select an address, it will show the status of the mobile phone coverage for each of the four MNOs. However, it is worth noting how Ofcom updates its map once a month. Therefore, there could be some discrepancies with other operators’ maps.
It is also worth noting that what mobile network operators give is a prediction of the average signal strength in a 100m2 area.
Ofcom’s Regular Coverage Testing
With much of the coverage relying on a prediction, the situation on the ground might be different.
Therefore, it could be more beneficial to resort to Ofcom’s – the authority overseeing the communications services across the United Kingdom – independent reports, on-ground measurement, and signal analysis.
Not only does Ofcom conduct regular testing to assess the quality of both 4G and 5G signals with measurements on the ground, but it also provides a detailed report about the method used during the assessment.
Trends and Status of Mobile Coverage across the UK
To have a clear picture of the evolution of mobile network coverage in the UK, we must analyze the mobile connection from two different points of view: type of connection and geographical distribution.
Mobile Coverage Trends by Generation
We can identify three main trends concerning the 3G, 4G, and 5G coverage:
- All operators are continuing the 3G switch-off, even though it still represents the only type of coverage available in some rural parts of the Kingdom
- All the mobile operators are continuing the 5G roll-out, and according to Ofcom’s Spring 2022 Update to its “Connected Nation 2021” report, as of January 2022, the outdoor premises covered by at least one MNO range from 47 to 62% (despite relevant differences in coverage between urban and rural areas). Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2022 report confirmed the quick, ongoing increase of 5G traffic
- 4G is the most-used type of connection across the Kingdom, accounting for up to 87% of the traffic in 2022.
Mobile Coverage by Nation
Coverage percentages referred to the entire United Kingdom might be misleading, as there are critical differences nationwide.
House of Common’s “Rural mobile coverage in the UK: Not-spots and partial notspots” and Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2021 reports perfectly portray the situation.
England represents the nation with the best coverage (4G), both in terms of indoor covered premises (91-95% MNO range) and reduced number of not-spots (2%). Not-spots show a peak in Scotland (18%), while Northern Ireland and Wales still struggle with poor 4G indoor coverage (respectively with 78-92% and 85-93% ranges).
|Outdoor Premises||England||Wales||Northern Ireland||Scotland|
|Indoor Premises||England||Wales||Northern Ireland||Scotland|
Data relative to 4G coverage – Source: Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2022
Indoor and Outdoor Coverage
Whether 4G or 5G, the coverage percentage may be misleading if not further dissected into its two main categories: indoor and outdoor. It is not uncommon for the outdoor coverage to have a strong signal, while the indoor correspondent lacks the necessary strength.
Thick walls and the type of material with which they are built, as well as the position of specific indoor areas in larger compounds, represent a barrier for the mobile signal. These factors strongly affect the overall indoor coverage, especially when combined with the position of phone masts and bases inside the cell.
All the major operators’ checkers, as well as Ofcom’s, usually show both types. Ofcom’s “Connected Nations 2021” report highlights a little ditch in the coverage percentage (4G connection) in the UK when switching from outdoor to indoor premises, from circa 99% for outside premises, to circa 95% for indoor premises.
Factors to Consider when Choosing the Best Mobile Network in the UK
Besides price plans, which are constantly changing, there might be other factors you will want to consider when choosing your mobile operator.
Mobile Device Compatibility
Not only does your mobile device define the type of network you can enjoy (4G or 5G), but also its speed and quality. That is why, as we have already seen, some operators ask you what the phone model you are using when checking the coverage.
If you want to switch from a 4G network to a 5G one, changing your subscription plan or SIM may not be enough. 4G and 5G are two different technologies; therefore, they require different hardwares. Checking the compatibility of your mobile device with the type of coverage is a mandatory step before changing the network provider.
Geographic Position and Landscape
As of 2023, the proximity to network masts and towers is still the main factor affecting the quality of the signal.
Regardless of what the coverage checkers show, knowing the positions of network towers in your area can make a difference. In rural areas, masts and towers are more distant, and natural barriers like hills and little mounts may impair the signal.
Urban areas are not completely exempted from this problem, as thick buildings and compounds can block the signal between your mobile device and the network bases.
You might want to consider also the possibility of enjoying a mobile connection outside the UK, especially if you love to travel abroad. In this sense, Brexit complicated things for those who travel to EU countries.
Operators have different rules regarding international roaming. Nevertheless, free coverage in a selection of European cities is often already included at least in the more expensive plans.
Comparing the Different Mobile Network Providers in the UK: Who is the Best at What
It might be hard to declare an absolute winner, as every carrier has its own strengths and weaknesses. However, we can break down the everyday usage of mobile internet connection into practical case studies and specifications to see how each operator performs.
Due to the wide range of available reports on the web, it is mandatory to point out how analysts carry out their research by prioritizing different aspects. Therefore, there could not be a coincidence in the findings when consulting all the reports you will find searching online.
Best Mobile Network Provider in the UK for Latency
Ofcom’s 2021’s report “Mobile Matters” define the response time as the time a network takes to deliver the data requested by a specific prompt. For example, the loading time of a webpage. Longer response times (also known as latency) are associated with a worse user experience.
If considering the 5G signal only, Three proved to have the shortest latency (28 ms), followed by EE (29 ms), O2 (41 ms), and Vodafone (46 ms).
However, if considering 4G coverage, EE showed a notable latency (31 ms), followed by O2 (45 ms) and Vodafone (46 ms), with Three plummeting to the last position with a 52-millisecond latency.
In conclusion, Three showed great 5G performances (confirmed in more recent reports by other independent market analysts and testers); EE proved to have a more balanced latency when considering both 4G and 5G coverage.
Best MNO for Video Streaming
Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of streaming platforms like YouTube, Netflix, and Twitch, and the explosion of short-video formats in many social media, like Instagram Reels and TikToks. It is not a surprise to consider video streaming one of the main benchmarks concerning mobile internet.
To compare the different performances, it might be worth citing the findings of Ofcom’s “Mobile Matters” report, published in late 2021, which focuses on 4G connections on Android mobile phones.
In an evaluation scale ranging from bad to excellent, Ofcom ranked MNOs according to their performances.
Although all four providers registered positive results, it is worth noting how EE stood out with an overall combination of good and excellent classifications in 81% of the cases. Vodafone and O2 followed with good and excellent results accounting for 72% of the cases. Three ranked last with a combined score of 71%.
Best Mobile Provider for Reputation and Customer Service
You might want to have a record of how the different providers dealt with different types of issues in the past. Ofcom’s “Comparing Customer Service: mobile, broadband and landline” report provides everything you need to know.
Quite surprisingly, one of the best performers in this category is an MVNO, Tesco Mobile, which ranked first in satisfaction with the overall service (96%), satisfaction with value for money (96%, joint winner with GiffGaff), and number of complaints for 100,000 subscribers (4).
Considering only the four principal MNOs, it is impossible to ignore the bad performances of Three and Vodafone, which had the worst records for customers with a reason to complain (16% and 12%).
Can MVNO Compete? A Flexible Alternative
There might be situations where Mobile Virtual Network Operators can compete with the four major network providers.
Not having network-building and maintenance costs allows MVNOs to offer consumers lower prices and more flexible plans than traditional providers can. The well-known trade-off consumers should be aware of is that MVNOs’ quality and speed might be limited, even when using the same MNOs’ infrastructure.
Nevertheless, they can be considered a viable alternative for those looking for a budget-friendly or high-customizable plan. To attract customers, MVNOs often provide additional benefits and extras, such as the Clubcard points offered by Tesco Mobile.
UK’s MVNO market, in this sense, gives consumers a wide range of virtual operators. They represent a good choice if you are looking for an additional network operator alongside the one you are already using.
How to Improve Your Coverage
If you are experiencing poor connection but are still hesitant about changing your operator, you can still resort to other means to improve your coverage. Since Ofcom eased the regulations for repeaters in 2021, consumers fighting with faltering indoor signals have three viable options:
- Changing the mobile device: a different type of antenna can affect the ability to receive the network signal. It might sound counter-intuitive due to the initial premise of not wanting to change the operator. However, buying a new, better device might be an easier task to carry out than having to change network providers.
- Using a femtocell: the same operator with which you already have a broadband subscription can provide these devices, which boost the already-existing broadband signal to improve indoor coverage.
- Signal repeaters: if you can enjoy good outdoor coverage, you might want to resort to a repeater or a booster. Contrary to femtocells, this type of device amplifies the signal coming from outside to improve the indoor experience. Due to many illegal repeaters on online marketplaces, it is recommended to turn to specialized professionals in mobile solutions or directly consult Ofcom’s website before proceeding with the purchase.
Conclusion: Which is the Best Mobile Network Provider in the UK?
Data-backed analyses are interesting, but you might be looking for a straightforward answer. Should you belong to this category, you ought to know that EE is widely recognized to be the best mobile network coverage in the UK.
Even though EE is not as dominant as it was in the past years, it still represents the best compromise for coverage and speed when considering both 5G and 4G signals.
However, a conclusive assessment cannot ignore how the 5G roll-out enables other operators, such as Three, to show the quality of their infrastructure in terms of speed. The result of the competition between the four rivals will depend, in fact, on the future development of the last generation of networks across the Kingdom.