Mobile phone coverage
By Dan Howdle | Monday, October 7th 2019
With four network providers, a multitude of individual providers spread across them, and four different technologies on the go all at once, understanding coverage is now a lot more complex than it used to be. But don't panic. Take our hand as we explain it all in a way anyone can understand.
How to find the best signal in your area
Despite the fact there are a great many providers operating in the UK, only four of them operate their own network, while the others piggyback their service onto one of these four. When checking signal, then, this is useful to know, since you really only need to check the coverage of four operators.
Nevertheless, we expect you have your heart set on a specific provider, so we've provided links to the coverage checkers for each. When visiting and checking coverage where you live and/or work, we recommend paying special attention to the signal you're likely to get indoors, as this can vary enormously compared to outdoors.
It's also worth bearing in mind that when you are inside, either at home or work, most of us will have access to wifi, meaning we don't generally need to rely on our providers for either data or calling coverage, since we can both download and call out using the wifi.
The EE network
EE was the first UK network to offer 4G, and it now offers LTE-Advanced in some areas as well, under the branding 4G+. EE also partnered with BT to form BT Mobile. This means BT uses EE’s 4G network to provide its customers with fast mobile broadband. EE’s 4G network currently covers more than 85% of the UK’s landmass and it plans to deliver 4G to 95% of UK landmass by 2020. Providers who piggyback on the EE network are ASDA Mobile, BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Utility Warehouse, 1p Mobile and The Phone Co-op.
Population-wise, EE covers 99% of the UK. This includes all the major cities and their suburbs. O2, Three and Vodafone also have their own 4G networks, but as things stand at the moment, none of them are quite as expansive as EE.
At the time of writing, EE is currently in the early stages of rolling out 5G, with six cities currently covered – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. EE plans to cover another ten cities by the end of 2019 and a further ten during 2020.
The O2 network
O2 launched its 4G service in August 2013 and has had a steady, but not meteoric, rise in its coverage since that time. Its broadband signal now covers around 98% of the UK population, so it’s certainly worth checking O2’s 4G coverage checker to see it's reached where you live/work.
Other providers who piggyback on the O2 network are giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and Lyca Mobile.
At the time of writing, 5G has launched on O2, covering Belfast Cardiff, Leeds, London and Slough, and plans to increase the number of city locations covered to 20 by the end of 2019, and 50 by the end of 2020.
The Vodafone Network
Vodafone’s 4G network also started in August 2013, and, equalling O2, it now covers 98% of the UK population. Make sure you check Vodafone’s coverage before you purchase a 4G package as it will cover different areas from O2.
Providers piggybacking on the Vodafone network are VOXI – which is owned by Vodafone, Talk Mobile, and Lebara Mobile.
At the time of writing, Vodafone has debuted its 5G offering in Birkenhead, Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol, Cardiff, Gatwick, Glasgow, Lancaster, Liverpool, London, Manchester. Newbury, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton, and plans a further seven city locations by the end of 2019. Vodafone has not currently announced plans for its 2020 rollout plans.
The Three network
Three was a little late to the party, with its 4G signal going live at the end of 2013, but it now covers 91% of the population. Make sure you check Three’s coverage in your area before purchasing a 4G plan. Despite 5G, all the networks are still working on increasing their 4G coverage – it’s a competitive business and they have regulator Ofcom watching over them.
Other providers piggybacking on the Three network are iD Mobile, and SMARTY (owned by Three).
At to the time of writing, Three is actually slowest out of the gate with its 5G rollout – sensibly, in our opinion, since there isn't a lot you can do with 5G you can't do with 4G right now. As such, Three 5G is currently available only in 'certain parts of London', with another 30-40 locations earmarked with nothing more specific than 'soon;.
What is 3G?
The G in 3G, 4G, 5G and so on stands for 'generation'. All 3G really means, then is that it is the third generation of mobile telecommunications infrastructure. It differs most substantially from its predecessor, 2G, in that it focuses on data transfer. 2G offered limited data access at ultra-slow download speeds, where 3G, with its somewhat paltry average 6.1Mbps download speed at least offers a reasonable chance of browsing the web, answering emails and even watching the odd YouTube video here and there.
Ultimately, though, you can no longer take out a plan with 3G data. The network, with its older technology, is still there in places. Where a 4G signal isn't available you may see your signal 'step down' to 3G to keep you connected. 3G is no longer relevant to conversations around package choice, though.
How fast is 3G?
The average speed for 3G in the UK, when it was the dominant mobile network technology was 6.1Mbps download, and 1.6Mbps upload.
Where is 3G available?
Both everywhere and nowhere. You will need to be somewhere your 4G or 5G plan can't get those services. In those cases it will search for a 3G signal if available. 3G is all but phased out and there are no 3G mobile deals available anymore.
What is 4G?
4G is the fourth generation in mobile communication (“G” stands for generation). It’s sometimes called ‘LTE’, for Long Term Evolution. 4G or LTE is designed to replace the previous 3G standard of transmitting wireless data to deliver faster mobile broadband.
Back in the dark ages (otherwise known as the early nineties) we had only 2G technology. This was suitable for making calls and sending text messages, but that’s it. By the late nineties, 3G had made it possible to access the internet through our phones (how we coped until then, nobody knows).
Everything changed again when 4G hit the UK in 2012 (some other countries got it a bit earlier). The 4G network made it much quicker to surf the web on mobiles, tablets and laptops. The combo of smartphones and 4G has opened up a whole new world of web use that the 3G network simply couldn’t cope with. As well as allowing us to email and browse the web on the move, 4G means we can stream video, listen to music, and map our journeys while we’re out and about.
How fast is 4G?
4G is super speedy. According to Ofcom, it would take about 20 minutes to download an album on a 3G phone but around three minutes on 4G.
Standard 4G (or 4G LTE) offers theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps, although in reality speeds are more like 80Mbps. Yes, 80Mbps – that’s faster than most residential broadband connections.
A new, even faster, version of 4G called 4G LTE-Advanced (also known as LTE-A, 4.5G or 4G+) is available in many parts of the UK. LTE-A offers theoretical speeds of up to 1.5Gbps, but most LTE-A networks have a maximum potential speed of about 300Mbps, with actual speeds experienced likely to be more in the region of 80-120Mbps.
Where is 4G available?
Everywhere. 4G is still currently the technology everyone uses, and so covers more than 99% of the Uk population no matter which network you choose.
What is 5G?
This is the million-dollar question. For year's 5G has had no official specification, only a general understanding that, like 4G before it, it was to be the next, yet-faster mobile data transfer technology.
5G is 4G, only faster. But unfortunately, the technology itself is rather different, meaning you're going to need a new, 5G-capable phone to access the service. In addition, you will have to live somewhere you can receive a 5G signal from one of the UK's four network providers: Three, O2, Vodafone or EE. Other providers offer 5G, but they all deliver their services via one of those four networks.
How fast is 5G?
In perfect, laboratory conditions, 5G has been tested running at a totally crazy 2.8Gbps. That's 2,800Mbps, or roughly 42 times faster than the fastest speeds most people can currently get on their home broadband connections. However, the lab is the lab, and in the real world it's unlikely you will see the needle go beyond 300Mbps.
But even at those sorts of speeds, 5G has a problem. There are currently no everyday applications that need that sort of speed to be delivered to a mobile phone. Three and some others say things like 'download 4K movies in seconds', but since 4K movies can only be streamed, not downloaded, it's all just disingenuous nonsense. For now, 5G isn't worth paying a premium for, while at some point in the future it'll simply be the norm.
Where is 5G available?
In the section further up, you can see which cities and towns 5G is currently available in with each of the UK's four network providers. Rollout is, at the time of writing, relatively slow, and if you're hoping 5G is going to become available at your broadband-blighted rural location, you are going to be in for a very long wait indeed. It will be at least a few years before the focus moves away from large towns and cities.
Frequently asked questions
Do I need a 5G compatible-phone to access 5G?
Yes you do, while as smartphones are now 4G-compatible, very few are 5G compatible, and those that are are extremely expensive. If you’re not sure, check your model on your phone manufacturer’s website, but if you didn't get your phone in the second half of 2019 or later, it's pretty safe to say it won't do 5G. You can get 4G phones on contracts or you can buy one outright and pair it with a SIM-only tariff.
Will I need a different SIM card?
You need to be on a 4G tariff to access 4G. Most networks offer 4G as standard now so your SIM card should be fine. If you’re on an ancient 3G tariff, ask your network for an upgrade.
What if I can’t get 4G?
If you can’t yet sample the delights of lightning-fast connectivity on your mobile phone, then there are alternatives. Mobiles that use the 3G network can still accomplish most of your needs, and they come with a wide variety of packages and deals.
If you have a 4G phone and SIM and find yourself in a 4G not-spot, you’ll simply fall back to 3G coverage. You’ll be able to see which type of network you’re on as 3G or 4G will be displayed next to the signal bars at the top of your phone’s display.
When is 5G coming?
It's already here, in a limited way. The fifth generation of mobile networks is far faster than previous generations. You will need a 5G compatible phone, however, and they are currently very expensive, and at the time of writing, you will have to live somewhere you can get it.