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Which phone network offers the best signal?

By Hamse Yusuf

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Which phone network offers the best signal?

New mobile phone signal analysis has found one network is way out ahead when it comes to offering the best 4G service.

We regularly work with independent mobile phone benchmarking experts Opensignal to report on the state of mobile phone networks in the UK.

In the latest research, published in spring 2019, we've focused on 4G performance. Opensignal looked at network performance over a three-month period, from December 2018 to February 2019, and found that EE continues to offer average 4G download speeds that are far higher than those available from rival networks. And while all four networks have improved the availability of their 4G networks, EE customers still have the best chance of getting a 4G signal and are able to access 4G 87% of the time.

However, speed and network availability shouldn't be your only consideration when choosing a provider – customer service and value for money can be just as important.

See how EE customers rated the network in our latest mobile phone provider review.

4G speeds

New Opensignal data revealed that from December 2018 to February 2019, EE customers received by far the fastest average 4G speed – 32.5Mbps. With a speed of 32.5Mbps, EE's average download speed is still faster than what some people will get from their home broadband connection.

Vodafone held on to second place, improving its speed from 21.92Mbps to 24.3Mbps.

O2's and Three's average speed also improved slightly - from 14.6Mbps and 18.78Mbps to 15.8Mbps and 21.6Mbps respectively.

4G availability

But speed is only part of the story – after all, a superfast service is of little use if you can never get a signal.

The good news is that finding a 4G signal in the UK is easier than it was six months ago.

Analysis of 4G availability – which tracks the percentage of time a smartphone user can connect to a particular network (rather than simply measuring geographic coverage) – revealed that all four networks continue to considerably improve how often their customers can access a 4G signal.

EE customers still have the best chance of getting a 4G signal and on average can access it 89% of the time (up from 86.77%).

O2 and Vodafone customers enjoy almost the same level of access to a 4G signal (available on average 84% and 83.4% of the time) but they have both lost territory on EE.

Three also improved slightly, with customers able to access a 4G signal 76% of the time, which is up almost three percentage points from last time.

3G and 4G speeds

The graphic above shows the average download speeds if people use both 3G and 4G networks, switching between them as the 4G signal drops in and out.

Once again, EE is way ahead of the three other providers, with its customers able to get an average download speed of 29.6Mbps.

The other networks are some way behind, and though all have improved their speeds, their gains have been far more modest. 

Vodafone increased its average combined download speeds to 21Mbps from 18.41Mbps.

3G speeds

The only area where EE wasn't the sole champion was in our analysis of 3G-only speeds.

Three is the front runner here, with speeds of 8Mbps. O2 and Vodafone lag quite far behind, achieving the same 3G speed (4.9Mbps).

Notably, EE's speed saw a dramatic decrease from 7.17Mbps to 5.8Mbps.

This might suggest that EE's 3G network resources are being reallocated to 4G users, which in turn, allows them to reallocate 4G resources for its upcoming 5G launch.

Read our guide to 5G and when it will arrive in the UK for more.

How Opensignal collects signal data

The information in this report is based on more than 1.1bn data readings taken from people who have downloaded the free Opensignal app. In total, Opensignal tracked 260,231 users around the clock from 1 December 2018 to 28 February 2019, checking every 15 minutes whether they had a signal.

It then analysed this data to calculate download speeds and network availability.

We think that reporting on availability – the proportion of time users actually have access to a particular type of signal – is more useful than simply stating geographical coverage, which is normally based on computer estimates or one-off drive-by assessments. After all, this shows whether users can get a signal where they need it and is therefore a more accurate reflection of the real-life experience.

How you can help

As well as using data from its app to produce these reports, Opensignal also uses it to generate a free online coverage checker. You can use this to determine the best network for where you live.

To ensure that our reports and the interactive map are accurate, we require as much data as possible. To help provide this, we need you to download OpenSignal's free Android or iPhone app.

The data collected is stripped of any identifying information and uploaded to Opensignal's servers, taking care to use as little processing power and battery life as possible.

You can read more about the apps and the coverage map on Opensignal's website.