By Steve McCaskill | Friday, January 18th 2019
When it comes to pure performance, one network has emerged as a clear winner. Quite simply, EE has the fastest and most widely available mobile network in the UK.
Over the past few years the mobile landscape has transformed through mergers, acquisitions and the arrival of 4G. All four operators have made improvements during that time, but when it comes to pure network performance it’s not even close.
As the first UK operator to launch 4G in November 2012, EE gained a head start in terms of coverage that it still enjoys to this day. Its service is available to 99.6 percent of the UK population, although it must be noted that double-speed 4G is largely limited to urban areas and 4G+ is restricted to certain parts of major cities.
While the initial focus of 4G rollout was on population coverage, EE is now making a big deal about ‘geographic coverage’ in a bid to push home its advantage. Its network is now available to 90 per cent of the UK landmass and the operator wants to increase this to 95 per cent by the end of the decade.
EE’s lead in population coverage has eroded in recent years and all four networks have reached more than 97 per cent. But EE’s commitment to geographic coverage means it’s still out in front.
Indoor coverage across all networks is still a work in progress, but has been made easier by the arrival of calls over 4G using Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology and over a home wireless network with Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-FI).
In terms of speed, EE enjoys a considerable advantage when it comes to 4G. Performance depends on device, the proximity to mast and the number of people on the network. It also matters which part of the country you are in as double speed 4G isn’t available everywhere.
What speed you can get on EE also depends on what type of plan you have. EE offers a wide range of handset deals, most of which come with up to 60Mbps download speeds, although some - the Max plans - promise EE's fastest speeds. In some very lucky parts of the UK, EE has even switched on 429Mbps.
While not all customers will get these headline speeds all the time, it’s still more rapid than the competition. Vodafone also offers ‘4G+’ in some parts of the country, but when it comes to speed, EE is in a league of its own.
When it comes to perks, it depends what you want. EE offers free subscriptions to BT Sport and Apple Music, while 4GEE Max subscribers get inclusive roaming in five countries outside the EU – Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA. It will also give you a data bonus if you take out a home broadband subscription (more on that below).
Three’s extras are also impressive. Its ‘Feel at Home’ offering lets customers use their data allowances across 71 destinations. This not only includes the EU, but the USA, Australia, Brazil and Hong Kong, but large swathes of South America and Asia. It also doesn’t count the streaming of certain services like Netflix against your monthly data allowance with Go Binge, and then there’s the Wuntu customer loyalty application.
Vodafone also offers inclusive content with some of its price plans, with customers able to choose from a NOW TV Entertainment pass, Spotify Premium or Sky Sports Mobile TV, while O2’s Priority is the UK’s biggest digital loyalty programme, offering bonuses like early access to gig tickets.
In reality, EE still wins in this category unless you’re travelling to a destination included in Three’s roaming offer.
Customer service is a little more even across the providers. According to Ofcom’s most recent data, EE receives just three complaints per 100,000 customers. This puts it on a level with rivals O2 and Three, and ahead of Vodafone with 11. Only Tesco Mobile is better with just one.
EE has made significant improvements to its customer service operations and now answers 100 per cent of calls from its centres in the UK and Ireland, while it has also invested in an improved online chat service.
Of the four major operators, O2 has the highest customer satisfaction rate of 93 per cent, while EE has 92 per cent and Three and Vodafone have 89 per cent. Virtual operators Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile command rates of 96 per cent and 94 per cent respectively.
The concept of value for money is subjective, so we’re going to break it down. If you’re after a flexible, cheap SIM-only deal with a modest allowance, then EE isn’t for you. It doesn’t offer a wide range of SIM-only deals either, so you’d be better served by the likes of Three, iD Mobile and Plusnet Mobile, all of which offer a large selection of extremely competitive deals.
But EE's SIM-only deals at the higher end of the spectrum compare favourably with the competition, and when you consider the fact that EE is the best network, it makes them difficult to beat. Similarly, with its handsets, the more you’re willing to spend, the better value EE’s proposition is.
It is worth noting that EE doesn’t offer any unlimited data packages, so Three might be your best bet on that front.
If you want to take advantage of EE’s coverage, but not its tariff, then you could consider one of the MVNOs that use its infrastructure. These include BT Mobile, ASDA Mobile, Plusnet Mobile and Virgin Mobile..
So if we’ve determined that EE is the best mobile network in the UK, which plan should you go for? As mentioned above, EE has two tiers of price plan – Essential and Max – both of which come with unlimited texts and calls with varying data allowances and six months' free Apple Music.
However, the Max plans also come with EE’s fastest 4G speeds, inclusive roaming in the USA, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia, as well as in the EU. You also get access to live sport on the go with BT Sport. Given that most entry-level fixed broadband speeds average 35Mbps, even EE’s Essential mobile deals are pretty rapid at 60Mbps, so unless you travel a lot or want to watch sport on the go, then it’s a good bet for most people, with monthly data allowances up to 30GB on offer. If you want the biggest data allowance of 100GB, then you will have to go for a Max plan.
When choosing your data allowance, bear in mind that if you take out a home broadband contract too, EE will automatically give you anything between 5GB and 20GB as a bonus, so you may not need as much as you think.