EE has emerged as the best 4G network for coverage in our first mobile phone network state of the market report, produced in partnership with OpenSignal. Data from OpenSignal users showed that EE customers had access to their 4G network more often than customers with any of the other three providers.
But while EE led the nation in 4G coverage it was outpaced by Vodafone for 4G speed – with the average Vodafone 4G customer enjoying speeds of over 13Mbps. Surprisingly, we also found that the average 4G speed has started to drop.
The computer vs the crowd
Our report offers a fresh look at the true state of the UK mobile phone network. Unlike most current coverage maps and reports – which are based on computer modelling to predict coverage – our report uses real data from real users.
Based on more than 60 million data readings from 40,000 OpenSignal users this crowd sourced data lets OpenSignal track when users have access to their 2G, 3G or 4G network and just how fast their connection is. It shows that coverage is nowhere near as widespread as the maps provided by many network providers would have you believe.
You can read the full mobile phone network state of the market report or see the highlights below.
4G or not 4G? – ‘probably not’ is the answer to that particular question
EE was the first company to launch 4G and it maintains a significant lead in coverage, with its customers able to access the network 50% of the time. That’s 10% more often than Vodafone and O2 4G users and twice as often as that of bottom placed Three.
While networks are still rolling out their 4G networks, 3G has been around for years. But we’ve found that both services can be patchy. Three customers, for example, enjoyed access to mobile internet more than 94% of the time, but for Vodafone users this dropped to just 65%.
Predictably, London was the best region for both 4G and 3G coverage and while density of people makes this understandable it doesn’t excuse terrible coverage in other areas. Wales was the worst region for both 4G and 3G, although poor 4G coverage was widespread outside the capital on all networks apart from EE.
Faster than home broadband but speeds are falling
The good news is that if you can get your hands on a 3G or 4G signal it should be pretty fast. The slowest average 4G speed came from Three, but at 8.95Mbps it’s still faster than the average ADSL home broadband connection of 7.4Mbps. And, if speed is important to you, there’s a clear winner.
While Kevin Bacon has been on TV talking up EE speeds our data showed Vodafone to be the fastest, with a blistering average speed of 13.21Mpbs. In comparison, EE clocked in at 11.78Mbps and O2 at 10.50Mbps.
We also found that average 4G speeds are slowing – from 19Mbps to 10.16Mbps in just under a year. The reason? It’s likely because more customers have signed up to 4G increasing demand on the network and slowing speeds. The good news is that as customers continue to sign up, we won’t necessarily see speeds fall any further. That’s because providers are hoisting more masts to cope with the extra demand.
Speeds for 3G were significantly slower than 4G but far from snail paced. Three was the fastest network with an average speed of 4.45Mbps and, while O2’s average speed of 2.92Mbps would struggle with streaming films, it’s still fast enough to take care of basic tasks like emailing and reading websites online.
Which? expert view – ‘Help us build a definitive map of network coverage’
I know my mobile phone signal inside out. I know that my morning with Absolute Radio 80s will be interrupted as I walk down the street and the signal drops from 3G to 2G. I know that I need to walk to the front of my flat to take a call because there is no signal at the back.
Coverage maps show 100% coverage in my area of North London but like many of you I know they are wrong. That’s why we’ve teamed up with OpenSignal to try and offer a report and map that better reflects the real user experience.
We plan to run this state of the market report regularly to see how coverage and speeds are improving – or not – and what the differences are between the networks. And you can help – OpenSignal has nearly 40,000 users but the more users it has the more accurate the data will be. By downloading the OpenSignal app (for Android or Apple phones) you can help us produce a definitive map of coverage and speed in the UK and better chart your region.
Rory Boland – Which? deputy technology editor