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The Lowdown on the UK Mobile Networks

May 13th, 2011 4 comments

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…..

Categories: Phones Tags: , ,

Free, Quick and Easy Conference Calls with ConferenceBuster

November 20th, 2009 No comments

I mentioned in a previous post that you could call 0800 numbers free from a mobile using a free service provided by Localphone.

They have now released another free service which gives free, quick and easy conference calls: ConferenceBuster.

If you want to have more than 1 person on a call to someone, all you do is go to: http://www.conferencebuster.co.uk, click the button and it gives you a phone number and pin.

You give the other person the phone number and pin and dial it yourself.

It’s free and the number to dial is a normal 01xxx number so will come out of your free minutes on your mobile for example.

iPhone 3G S

June 9th, 2009 No comments

Apple just announced the new ‘iPhone 3G S’ at it’s WWDC 2009 conference.

The S stands for ‘Speed’ and the new iPhone will contain the following new features:

  • Faster
  • 3 mega-pixel camera with auto focus and auto macro
  • Video recording and editing
  • Voice commands
  • A digital compass
  • Improved battery life

The exterior of the device will be the same as the current iPhone 3G.

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

iPhone / iPod Touch version 3.0

June 8th, 2009 No comments

Apple today confirmed, at it’s WWDC 2009 conference that the previously announced 3.0 firmware that has been in beta for the last few months will be released on June 17th.

The update contains many big features such as Copy & Paste and MMS but also includes 100 updates and 1000 new API calls.

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , , ,

Call 0800 Numbers Free from a Mobile Phone

May 20th, 2009 3 comments

Many years ago I remember that 0800 numbers were free to call from mobile phones as well as land lines. That all changed a long time ago though and 0800 numbers are chargable calls – which is annoying when most phone call packages come with plenty of minutes nowadays.

Here is a neat trick though to be able to call 0800 numbers using your inclusive minutes.

1. Go to 0800buster.co.uk

2. Note the number in the top left hand corner of the page (this is randomly displayed from their pool of numbers so if one doesn’t work, just refresh and try another!)

3. Store it in your mobile for when you need to dial an 0800.

To call an 0800 you can now call that 0800buster number and enter the 0800 you would like to call, followed by #

You can even store numbers in your phone book by using the pause function on your mobile – see the 0800buster site for details

Categories: Phones Tags: ,

New iPhone Spec Rumours

May 19th, 2009 2 comments

There have been several rumours recently about the spec of the next, rumoured iPhone.

The Apple iPhone Apps site has given a good roundup and review of them – see here. All sounds plausible to me – certainly along the lines of what I was thinking!

* 32GB and 16GB to replace current capacities
* $199 and $299 price-points to be maintained
* 3.2 Megapixel camera
* Video recording & editing capabilities
* Ability to send a picture & video via MMS
* Discontinuation of the metal band surrounding the edge of the device
* OLED screen
* 1.5X The battery life
* Double the RAM and processing power
* Built-in FM transmitter
* Apple logo on the back to light up
* Rubber-tread backing
* Sleeker design
* Built-in compass
* Revolutionary combination of the camera, GPS, compass, and Google maps to identify photo and inform about photo locations.
* Turn by turn directions
* July 17th, 2009 release date

The article also

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

New iPhone Rumours

April 1st, 2009 No comments

Now that a lot of my software wishlist has been answered in the iPhone and iPod Touch 3.0 firmware, i’m now excited to hear what they are going to add to the next hardware version of the iPhone which will likely be announced at the WWDC in June and I am madly hoping will be out shortly after that.

My wishlist would be:

Relistic additions:

  • Better camera
  • Flash
  • Video recording
  • Faster processor
  • More memory
  • 3G optimisations for better signal and faster data

Ideals:

  • Bigger, higher resolution screen
  • Removable battery
  • SD Card slot for extra memory

It’s good to see that the latest rumours are at least pointing to some of them becoming reality:

http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/03/31/report_two_distinct_iphone_models_nearing_production.html

Categories: iPhone Tags: , ,

Apple has increased the “9 pages of apps” limit on the iPhone / iPod Touch

April 1st, 2009 No comments

Finally! – Apple has increased the “9 pages of applications” limit (148 apps) on the latest iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0 beta to 11 pages (180 apps) – still not ideal but at least a little more ability to install new apps without removing old ones.

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

Apple Released 2nd beta of iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0

April 1st, 2009 No comments

Apple have released a 2nd beta of the iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0 firmware to developers:

http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/03/31/apple_releases_second_beta_of_iphone_3_0_software_to_developers.html

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

Downgraded my iPod Touch from the 3.0 beta back to 2.2.1

April 1st, 2009 No comments

I’ve been running the 3.0 beta since just after it was released and while the new features are great (and i’m sure it will be fine when it’s released), it is definatly a beta and when they say it’s only for testing compatibility with applications and not for everyday use, that’s not a disclaimer!

Since upgrading, i’ve had intermittent problems connecting to wifi, applications regularly just disappear when you are in the middle of something (or sometimes quicker than you can even start!) and it’s just very slow – everything you click on seems to hang it for a second or two which is very frustrating when you are trying to check your email or something. Also you end up pressing too many times with impatience and then when it comes back it does a load of actions.

I posted a guide to downgrading the iPhone / iPod Touch in a previous posting.

Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,