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The Lowdown on the UK Mobile Networks

In the UK, we have 5 main mobile network providers (others simply piggy-back on one of these networks):

I’ve recently spend some time considering which network to move to next and thought i’d share my thoughts and experience.

Background:

For many years (probably approaching 10 at a guess), I stuck with Orange – upgrading to a new handset each year in exchange for signing another 12 month contract. Once I got married and moved, the signal where we lived was poor and I eventually left Orange for 3UK, who I used for several years until 2009 when I moved to O2 to get an iPhone, as they had the exclusive supply in the UK. At that time, I had the choice of an 18 month or 24 month contract and I opted for the 24 month to keep the cost down and keep in-sync with the iPhone release schedule. In 2010, with the release of the iPhone 4, I sold my iPhone 3GS and bought a sim-free, unlocked iPhone direct from Apple and continued with the O2 contract. In this time i’ve also had various other, secondary devices on various networks for various purposes or to take advantage of certain deals.

This brings us up to today, where I soon enter the last month of the O2 contract and I am keen to move away from O2 to another network. The reason for this is almost purely their (lack of) 3G network. As far as coverage goes, they are excellent – it’s very unusual for my phone to be out of service, anywhere. The problem is, I use my phone a lot for data and it’s almost a bit unusual to see a 3G signal unless i’m in a big city – and even then, i’ve been in both London and Middlesbrough and not had a 3G signal indoors. The other minor consideration is they changed their tarrifs last year and removed unlimited data and started charging for MMS (Picture/Video) Messages, which were previously charged at 4x text messages taken from the available allowance.

My thinking is as follows – i’ll do some testing with Vodafone and 3UK (it’ll become apparent below why these are my choices) using Pay-As-You-Go SIM cards and sign a rolling 1-Month SIM Only contract with my preferred choice. I’ll use the period until the next iPhone is released to fully evaluate the network to ensure i’m happy before committing to a 24 month contract in exchange for the latest iPhone. There are a lot of rumours around this year that the tradition of a new iPhone every June will be broken and it will be somewhere around September this year, so I may have plenty of time to evaluate my decision!

For the past few weeks, i’ve been carrying two Nokia 6120 Classic phones, one with a Vodafone sim and the other with a 3UK sim, in addition to my iPhone on O2 and comparing signal. I’ve compared signal across my own area of Teesside but also on a weekend trip to Worcester in the Midlands and another weekend trip up to Hexham in order to gauge the relative signal strengths in different places.

Firstly, a look at the different networks:

O2:

O2 (formally Cellnet, or BT Cellnet), along with Vodafone are the oldest of the UK networks. They transmit on 900Mhz (GSM) for their 2G network and as with all of the UK networks, 2100Mhz for 3G. As i’ve already covered, their 2G network is excellent and covers pretty much all of the UK but as you see on the 2009 Ofcom Report, their 3G coverage is the worst of all of the providers and is largely focused on cities and large population areas. Being on 900Mhz for 2G coverage means they are able to get greater range so can have fewer, more spread out masts to achieve good coverage, as opposed to Orange and T-Mobile who use the 1800Mhz (PCN) band and require cell sites closer together. 900Mhz also by nature gives better penetration through walls and buildings than 1800Mhz (PCN) and 2100Mhz (3G).

Orange:

Orange run a 2G network on 1800Mhz (PCN) and a 3G network on the standard 2100Mhz. Looking at the coverage maps, they would appear to have the 2nd best 3G coverage, behind 3UK. However, my wife has a HTC Desire on Orange and quite regularly she will have a good 3G signal but is unable to get any kind of data connection – a great source of frustration. At first, I wasn’t sure whether this was the network, phone or settings, but several other Orange users i’ve spoken to have exactly the same problem, which seems to be caused by network overloading. Reading around various forums, lots of people round the country seem to have the same problem and some describe the Orange data network as ‘on it’s knees’.

In 2010, Orange purchased T-Mobile and they have joined forces under the banner of ‘Everything Everywhere‘. Shortly after this, they announced that they had enabled roaming between their 2G networks. This means that Orange customers will roam onto T-Mobile’s 2G network if they are outside of Orange coverage and T-Mobile customers will roam onto Orange’s 2G network if they are outside of T-Mobile coverage. I also believe that Orange Mobile Broadband dongles now use the T-Mobile 3G network and backhaul rather than Orange’s. They have announced that a full network share (which will include 3G and allow connection to the strongest available signal rather than roaming when out of service) will come later. This latter part is interesting, as I will cover under T-Mobile below.

T-Mobile:

T-Mobile run a 2G network in the 1800Mhz (PCN) band. For their 3G network, they jointly own (50/50) a company called MBNL (Mobile Broadband Network Ltd) with 3UK. Under this agreement, they share cell sites, towers and (I think) antenna’s using something called RAN (Radio Access Network) but then have their own backhaul connectivity – either via fibre or using directional microwave links daisy chain on to another, nearby cell tower. They therefore have pretty much the same 3G coverage as 3UK (although I believe that 3UK’s backhaul is faster, giving better data speeds, but this will of course vary depending on location).

What’s interesting here though is that as I mentioned above, T-Mobile is now owned by Orange, who are looking to merge their 3G networks. How I believe this will work is that the MBNL sites will be enabled as part of the Orange network, they will shut off all of the Orange sites which are the same as or close to MBNL sites and will contribute their remaining (around 3,000 I believe) sites to the MBNL network. This means 3UK will have the option of running their backhaul links to those sites and gain the additional benefit of those sites on their network. Once all completed and enabled, these sites will transmit Orange, T-Mobile and 3UK signal through common antenna’s (but with their own equipment and backhaul). This will mean that in theory, all 3 networks should have the same coverage.

Three (or 3UK):

3UK is ran by Hutchinson Telecommunications who used to own Orange, before it was sold to France Telecom. As they are a newer company compared to the other networks, they decided to only build a 3G network and they utilised this early on by pushing ‘video calling’ as their unique selling point, as well as offering very generous call and text allowances. As I covered above, their 3G sites are deployed by MBNL which is jointly owned with T-Mobile but I believe they do deploy some of their own, 3-only sites to increase capacity (more than coverage) in certain areas.

As they don’t have their own 2G network and because of the higher frequency of 3G, it’s much harder to get complete coverage because masts have to be closer together and 3G also requires faster data connectivity which I assume will be tricky in rural areas. To ensure good coverage, they agreed a roaming agreement with O2. In 2006, a deal was done with Orange and 2G roaming migrated from O2 to Orange (although for a while it worked on both at the same time!). What this means is that if the phone is unable to obtain a 3UK (3G) signal, it will use Orange (or originally O2′s) 2G network. This 2G roaming is generally a good thing because it gives you the ability to make and receive calls and text messages (and very slow data) while you would otherwise be out of service. However, there is a few quirk’s with this. Firstly, if you are in an area that has a very weak 3 (3G) signal but a strong Orange (or previously O2) 2G signal, the phone will prefer and stick to the 3G signal – so at times you actually got a better signal for calls by going (further) inside, covering the phone or doing other things which would usually reduce the signal because it caused it to lose the weak 3G signal and use the stronger 2G signal. Phones also only re-scan the available signals every so often (usually after a few minutes inactivity) so it’s possible that if you lose 3G signal momentarily and it picks up the 2G network (especially as it will scan in sequence so it depends where in the sequence you catch it), it will hold on to it until the next check. This and people who disable 3G on the phones will mean that there are a lot of unnecessary calls going through the 2G network while in 3G coverage areas and that will obviously come at a cost to 3UK as they will have to pay Orange for the calls through their network. For these reasons, they have started to turn off the Orange roaming in certain areas which they believe will have adequate 3G coverage.

Vodafone:

Vodafone’s network is very similar to O2′s (in fact, I believe they do share some cell sites). They have an excellent 2G network on 900Mhz (GSM) and according to the coverage maps, they have a better 3G coverage than O2 (but not as good as 3UK or Orange).

My Conclusions:

For the reasons I outlined above, my choice was to move to either Vodafone or 3UK. In my testing with the Nokia 6120 Classic’s on 3UK and Vodafone, the Vodafone signal was good, but it was still on 2G at times – whereas the 3UK signal was excellent. The 3UK phone was always in 3G coverage and quite often had a full signal so was a clear winner on signal strength.

3UK were also a long way ahead in terms of the package – for £25/month on a 1-Month SIM-Only deal or £35 with an iPhone, you can get their “One Plan”. This includes 2,000 cross network minutes, 5,000 text messages, 5,000 3-3 minutes and unlimited data. Unusually, the unlimited data doesn’t have a fair usage limit and they make a big deal out of the fact that it is truly unlimited. They also allow the use of tethering and use of the “Personal Hotspot” feature in the latest iPhone software. Vodafone on the other hand are the same price, but for £25 on a 1-Month SIM Only deal, you only get 600 minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB data and on an iPhone contract, £35 gets you the same but with 500Mb data. Vodafone do include BT OpenZone Wifi usage when near a hotspot but they charge extra for tethering and personal hotspot which is a shame.

On the strength of the above, and the fact that i’d had a good experience with them for several years in the past, I went ahead and ordered the 3UK SIM Only deal (through Quidco to get £50 cashback). This is however where things get a little strange. When the Microsim arrived for the iPhone 4, the number of bars on the iPhone was clearly no where near that of the Nokia. I tried it for a few days and where the Nokia was often full signal, the iPhone was rarely full signal. It wasn’t that the iPhone was bad at receiving a signal because it was as good as the Nokia at picking up a very weak signal. There is a good article here about why bar’s don’t really matter – the bars are just a visual representation of the actual signal strength reading and there is no standard for this between manufacturers, but it just wasn’t right. The iPhone was quite often 1 or 2 bars and speed tests varied a lot. This also confirmed experience some friends have using iPhones on 3UK.

Another consideration was that Vodafone is the only network that seems to work well in our house. Coverage on the other networks is patchy, until you walk out and off down the street where it jumps in signal.

The above problems and the fact that 3UK are withdrawing the 2G roaming coverage which can easily create gaps in the coverage has led me to go with Vodafone. The 3G coverage might not be as comprehensive, the deal not as good and no tethering/personal hotspot without paying extra, but at least I know I should (just about) always have at least a 2G signal for calls and texts, even if I can’t get a 3G signal for data.

I’ve also already got a 3UK Mifi (Mobile Wifi) which I can continue to use for data as a backup so going with a different provider it saves me from finding an alternative to that, which I would have if i’d gone with 3UK for the iPhone. Also, it’s only on a 1-month contract (and I got the 1st 2 months free) so i’ve got between now and when the next iPhone comes out evaluate and change my mind…..

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  1. Abaloo
    May 13th, 2011 at 05:50 | #1

    Unbelievable post! Thanks Ian, you packed so much detail into that article – so much research that others can benefit from. Really interesting choice too, you’ll have to keep us updated between now and (likely) September before you have to commit.

    Big, big thank you!

  2. May 13th, 2011 at 09:03 | #2

    Great post Ian,

    Didn’t know that 3UK shared sites with T-Mobile.

    I share your experience with poor O2 3G coverage and good 2G, but I’m loath to switch, as I’m on a staff tariff via my brother, grandfathered into unlimited data, on a £10.50 a month sim only tariff.

    Haven’t tried 3UK, but when using mobile dongles in the North East, T-Mobile is by far the best for me out of the other networks.

    I’m currently using a three level solution for my connectivity:

    An iPhone 4 on O2 as my main phone.

    A ZTE Blade (Orange San Francisco, sub £100) running Cyanogen 7 with a T-Mobile PAYG sim as a backup. Never use it for calls, but T-Mobile do 500MB a month data PAYG for £20 for 6 months, so £40 a year. Take this with me if I think I might need a backup device. Tethering works, but don’t think that’s allowed in the contract, so emergencies only.

    A Zoom 4506 3G WiFi Router with PAYG dongles for O2, Vodafone, and T-Mobile. I take this with me if I’m going to need to tether a laptop or an iPad. Bigger than a MiFi, but easier to swap networks via the dongles.

  3. May 13th, 2011 at 09:44 | #3

    Hi Ian,

    Firstly, I would like to say how happy we are that you have chosen us! Welcome to our network :)
    If you ever need any help or support during your contract with us, we have loads of help available.
    We use social media as a great customer service tool so you can find quick support from us on our Facebook page here http://goo.gl/i4vmF, our Twitter page here http://goo.gl/vDitX or our eForum here http://goo.gl/r3Ko4.

    Thanks again,

    Heidi
    Web Relations Team
    Vodafone UK

  4. May 13th, 2011 at 19:10 | #4

    Hi Ian

    Congratulations on a great post with some exceptional research. In light of your comments, we wanted to share with you some of the progress we’ve been making since the Ofcom report from 2009 that you mentioned.

    Firstly, you’ll be pleased to hear that we’re the first of the UK mobile networks to put our 900MHz spectrum to even better use by enabling 3G over the frequency, in addition to the original 2100MHz band. We’re expecting this to deliver a 50% capacity increase to our existing 3G network. So far, we’ve rolled this technology out across London, Leeds, Manchester, Swindon and Birmingham, with very promising results.

    Our 2G network currently provides voice and data services which are available to 99% of the UK’s population. Our 3G network is available to over 84% of the population, providing voice and high-speed data services of up to 14.4Mbps, which is set to increase to 21Mbps in the coming months. Over the last two years, we’ve invested £½ billion in our network (£10billion to date so far). In 2010, we invested £1million every day, helping us to build hundreds of new cell sites across the UK, and that investment’s increased by 25% for 2011.

    The result of all this hard work and investment is reflected in a few ways:

    As part of our regular and rigorous network testing, we released results of a comprehensive survey which compared the data speeds of all five UK operators. The tests show that in January 2001, O2 offered the best data experience in 12 out of 13 cities. On average, web page access on O2 was delivered in 1.4 second, over three times quicker than the slowest operator.

    We scooped Best Network at the What mobile and Mobile News awards, as well as Network of the Year at the Know Your Mobile awards 2010. We’ve also won the Mobile Choice Award for Best Network, for the third consecutive year.

    We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but we’re disappointed that your personal experience with us has led to your decision to try someone else. Rest assured that our efforts to enhance our customers’ experiences will continue. These include the introduction of O2 Wifi, which we’ve already started to roll out. We’ll have over 14,000 hotspots nationwide by the end of 2014 for you to use for free, even if you decide to stay with Vodafone :)

    We’ve already seen on Twitter that you know where to find us, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if there’s anything you need.

    All the best,

    Chris
    Social Media Team
    O2

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