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The Best 4G Networks in the UK

22 Dec 2014

4G networks are now in full swing in the UK. The 4G protocol is rising in popularity, with more and more people upgrading from 3G. If you are looking to upgrade to the faster network, deciding which mobile company to take a contract out with can be a little tricky.

Due to the way the 4G spectrum auction panned out, providers bought lots of different chunks in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands. These bands ultimately dictate how well a network will perform in urban and rural areas, but also how well 4G signal can pass through walls and enter buildings. Because of these caveats, a network that works well in one city may be awful in another, which makes the task of picking ‘the best’ 4G network difficult.

Ideally, you will want to take out a contract with a company that invested in both ends of the spectrum. This should give balanced, reliable performance no matter where you are geographically. EE invested in both 800Mhz and 2600Mhz respectively, as did Vodafone and Three.

Bizarrely, O2 threw all of its weight behind the 800MHz, believing this investment would give it unrivaled rural and indoor coverage, which it may very well do. This does leave them in a weak position in the urban areas though. The higher 2.6GHz band is what powers communication throughout cities and dense urban areas, and is also the band that grants the best data speeds and performance.

All of these numbers and frequencies are just theory, but do they actually make a difference?

4G networks with the best speeds

In their advertising, EE have the fastest speeds by far, even offering ‘double speed’ 4G in certain cities, which gives up to 60 Mbps download. This is blisteringly fast, however it’s very unlikely that you would actually get this speed, due to congestion on the network.

Advertised speeds are kind of meaningless in the 4G world. So many factors can influence data speeds, meaning the only real way to see how well a network performs is to give it a go in your area. The easiest way to do this is to carry out a speedtest on a friend’s phone, or pop in store and have a play with one of the demo models.

In terms of nationwide speeds, PC Advisor carried out an experiment which saw them testing out speeds on a trip from London to Edinburgh. Whilst this is by no means comprehensive, it shows just how much variation there can be between networks in terms of performance. On the day, they found Three to be the fastest and most reliable network, with EE coming second, then O2, and Vodafone placing dead last.

In a much more comprehensive test, RootMetrics found EE to be the best performing network, followed by Three, O2, with Vodafone flailing behind once again. In the key fields of reliability and internet performance, Three and EE were only separated by a few points. However, there was a big difference in terms of speed between the two leaders, and a drastic reduction in speed when EE and Vodafone are compared.

In a series of tests carried out in London, ITPro found that EE performed best in the region, followed very closely by O2 and Vodafone, who were almost inseparable, and then Three, who performed poorly in the capital.

A clear trend can be seen. EE regularly scores well across the board. In reality, it is probably the safest bet in terms of speed. That is not to say the other providers are not quick, because they are, but EE seems to be the most stable across the country.

There is an issue with this though. Because EE is so popular, more people are signing up to its service, which means less bandwidth to go around, which means reduced performance. At this stage of the game, their performance should not be hit too much, but it could drop significantly in the future as the service continues to rise in popularity. Three are in an even more difficult situation because of this; they secured a much smaller chunk of bandwidth, which means they are more prone to congestion related difficulties.

Again, this shows just how fickle a measurement 4G network speed is. It is not guaranteed and can change due to a number of circumstances. In our opinion, it is counterproductive to get too bogged down with speeds. Obviously, you want to choose a network that performs considerably faster than a 3G service, but do not become fixated with top speeds as you will never hit them.

Instead, make sure the network has good overall speeds, but it’s equally as important to make sure it also has good coverage.

4G networks with the best coverage

In terms of coverage, EE inevitably comes out on top. It had a headstart of about a year when compared to the other networks, and it also has rolled out its 4G services in the most locations.

The other networks have played catch up well, though. In fact, most networks plan to have near universal coverage within the next year or so.

O2 have an ace up their sleeve thanks to championing the 800MHz band. This puts them in the best situation to serve areas that the other providers cannot reach, although this comes at a cost as they will not be able to compete with the speeds offered by the networks that invested in the 2.6MHz frequency.

If you are in an urban area, EE or Three should work perfectly. Vodafone should work well too, in theory at least. They invested very healthy amounts into each spectrum, but review data has not painted the company’s 4G service in the best light so far. In time though, their service should improve as they have no shortage in resources.

Best priced 4G networks

Selection of UK currency

Great performance is one thing, but it also has to be priced right.

There can only be one winner in this category and that is Three. They are the only network to offer unlimited 4G data, and they even go as far to offer 4G to their customers for free.

In terms of monthly contracts and handset prices, the operators are mostly the same. O2 offer the advantage of their fantastic reward scheme, Vodafone offer Sky Sports and Spotify accounts to their customers, but for the latest handsets, prices will be in the same ball park no matter what service provider you choose.

Another great option is to go with a provider that piggybacks on the masts of another network, such as GiffGaff or Tesco Mobile, who both make use of O2’s broadcast masts. This is great if you want a newer handset for a great price, but it is not a great choice if you are concerned about reliability. O2 customers will always receive priority on O2 masts, which means performance drops in peak times for Tesco Mobile and GiffGaff customers. Still, Tesco Mobile offer entry-level 4G devices for as little as £10 a month, which is extremely cheap.


Take all of these aspects into account before making a decision

Overall, EE is the best 4G provider in the country right now. Tests have shown that it scores well on coverage and performance across the country, and it is likely to work in your area, due to the company making the biggest progress with their 4G rollout so far.

Three is also an excellent choice and performed very well in tests. For the data hungry user, taking out a contract with Three is a no brainer.

For rural customers, it may be worth seeing if O2 coverage reaches your area if you are struggling to find a reliable provider. O2 should reign supreme in villages and small towns that normally struggle with signal.

Vodafone have plenty of potential, but it seems like they have been having some teething problems with their service. Still, they offer great speeds in certain areas, but it’s best to check if you area is covered before hand. They are definitely worth keeping an eye on, and it would not be surprising to see them surging up the rankings within the next few years.


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