Download PDF version of the test here
The 2017 Mobile Network Test in the United Kingdom
The fourth sucessive year, the consulting, engineering and testing company P3 communications GmbH and connect magazine have examined UK’s mobile networks’.How would the ongoing improvements of the LTE network and the rollout of enhancements like Voice over LTE affect the ranking of the four mobile operators in the UK? Or simply put: Which operator offers the best network for mobile voice and data?
RESULTS IN A NUTSHELL
The 2017 P3 connect Mobile Benchmark in the United Kingdom has a clear winner with a very good EE, and a good Vodafone on rank two. In contrast, Three and O2 have lost some ground compared to our previous year’s Benchmark.
Due to the carefully designed methodology, including drivetests and walktests and for the first time, an additional crowdsourced assessment of service availability (see page 10), P3‘s network benchmarks are highly objective, and have been widely accepted as authoritative. In this year, the drive tests covered 20 of the largest cities in the UK with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Additionally, we conducted walktests in 11 cities, eight of which have also been included in the drivetests. The cars also visited smaller towns and drove on trunk roads and motorways. The areas in which we tested caters for more than 17 million people, or roughly 27% of the UK population.
P3‘s rigorous and meticulous measurement included the use of up-to-date LTE Cat 9 as well as VoLTE-capable smartphones for the tests. We also constantly readjust the thresholds of our evaluation. With steps like these, we reflect the latest technical developments in the mobile networks and once more emphasise the scope of our benchmarking: How do the mobile networks perform at the edge of what is technically feasible – and to what extent do customers benefit from these capabilities? In order to provide valid answers to these questions, we have also used the most comprehensive mobile plans available from each operator.
Top ranking EE and second-placed Vodafone
The overall winner of this year‘s UK benchmark is EE with the grade "very good" and a clear lead in voice and data as well as a high degree of operational excellence. Vodafone ranks second at some distance in voice and data and the overall grade "good" (but a full 30 points in our new crowdsourcing assessment – see page 10).
Compared to the previous year, both top-ranking contenders show distinct score improvements, with EE achieving the most distinct gain. Three comes in third, showing a definite gap behind Vodafone‘s voice and data as well as to the operational excellence results but still achieving the grade "good". As in 2016, O2 ranks last with the grade "satisfactory". In terms of points, both Three and O2 have lost some ground compared to the previous year.
The UK’s operators
Of the four mobile networks competing in the UK, EE and O2 are the largest players in terms of subscribers, followed closely by Vodafone, with the smaller Three attacking with aggressive tariffs.
With approximately 30 million customers, EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) is the biggest mobile network operator in the UK. Since January 2016, EE has been part of the British Telecom Group. EE started offering a 4G service in October 2012. The operator claims that its 4G coverage today reaches about 99 per cent of the UK population. The geographic 4G coverage currently is approximately 85 per cent, with an ambition to hit 95 per cent by 2020. EE operates its 4G network at 800 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz. Additionally, it operates 2G at 1800 MHz and 3G at 2100 MHz which also reach a population coverage in the 98 to 99 per cent range.
EE operates a growing number of “LTE Advanced“ network cells that support Category 9 (Cat 9) and thus faster speeds of up to 450 Mbps. Also, EE offers Voice over LTE (VoLTE) in parts of its 4G network. All plans come with 4G at no extra cost.
O2 claims to be the second largest mobile network operator in the UK with approximately 25 million customers. Formerly a subsidiary of British Telecom, O2 plc was purchased by the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica in 2006. Today, the company also owns half of the mobile virtual network operator Tesco Mobile which operates on the O2 network in the UK. O2 started providing its 4G service in August 2013 and has expanded this service across the UK since. In September 2017, O2 claimed to cover over 97 per cent of the UK population with its 4G service, striving to meet a regulatory requirement of covering 98 per cent of the indoor population by the end of 2017.
O2 operates its 4G network mainly on 800 MHz with limited additional 1800 MHz coverage in London. Additionally, O2 provides 2G on 900 and 1800 MHz and 3G on 900 and 2100 MHz. Like the other UK operators, O2 has started to roll out Voice over LTE (VoLTE) in parts of its 4G network.
Vodafone UK is part of the Vodafone Group which is also headquartered in the UK. The Vodafone Group owns and operates networks in 21 countries. Vodafone UK launched 4G/LTE in 2013. With around 18 million subscribers, Vodafone is the third largest mobile network in the UK after EE and O2. In June 2012, Vodafone and O2 signed a deal to “pool“ their network technologies, creating a single national grid of 18,500 transmitter sites. Both networks however announced they would continue to use their own independent spectrum. Vodafone currently operates 4G/LTE at 800 and 2600 MHz and has started to refarm also some of its 3G spectrum at 2100 MHz to 4G. Additionally, Vodafone offers 2G at 900 and 1800 MHz plus 3G at 900 and 2100 MHz.
With “Carrier aggregation“, Vodafone is upgrading its 4G network to “4G+“, currently offering up to 450 Mbps – as well as Voice over LTE (VoLTE) telephony.
Three UK is a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa and launched its mobile service in the UK in 2003. As a relatively young operator Three started as a 3G-only network supplemented by 2G via national roaming. In December 2013, Three began to roll out its 4G/LTE service and expanded it rapidly all over the UK. With about 9.2 million customers Three is the smallest mobile network operator in the UK but claims to carry over 40% of the nation‘s data traffic. Offering the cheapest price for 4G and unlimited data plans (excluding tethering) may well support this claim.
In addition to 1800 MHz, Three offers 4G also at 800 MHz as well as 3G on 2100 MHz. The company currently claims to cover 98 per cent of the UK‘s population with 3G and about 91 per cent of the poplulation with 4G. Ultimately, Three is aiming at 98 per cent UK population coverage with its 4G network. Three has also started to deploy Voice over LTE (VoLTE) in parts of its growing 4G network.
A close look at the UK networks
All UK operators are working hard to expand their LTE networks’ coverage and performance. Recently, they also introduced VoLTE. How will these investments affect the results of our network test?
P3 communications GmbH, based in Aachen, Germany, is a world leader in mobile network testing. It is part of the P3 group, with over 3,000 employees worldwide and a turnover of more than €300 million. P3 is partnering with the international telecommunications magazine connect, which has more than 20 years of editorial expertise and is one of the leading test authorities in Europe for telecommunications products and services.
Together, P3 and connect have been conducting the most important network benchmark test in Germany for 15 years –extending it to Austria and Switzerland in 2009. Starting in 2014, P3 has also been conducting benchmarks in the UK and Australia, expanding its public mobile network benchmarks to the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden in 2016.
In 2016 alone, P3 compiled more than 60,000 measurement hours in 65 countries across five continents, with its test vehicles covering more than 620,000 miles. As the de-facto industry standard, the P3 benchmarking methodology focuses on customer-perceived network quality – examining voice telephony that makes up 38.8 per cent of the result, data connectivity that contributes 58.2 per cent as well as operational excellence, currently accounting for three per cent of the total result. P3‘s network benchmarks are widely accepted as a completely objective authority.
EE and Vodafone on top positions with score improvements
After a tie of both contenders in 2016, this year‘s P3 connect Mobile Benchmark in the UK finds EE to be the clear winner and Vodafone ranking second. Both top-ranking contenders in the UK show distinct score improvements over our 2016 results.
“All operators took the challenge of the P3 connect Mobile Benchmark and have increased their LTE coverage. In 2018 over the top content services, technologies like carrier aggregation and voice over LTE as well as crowdsourcing-based use cases will become more important. This will make the results even more exciting.”