Best mobile broadband coverage - the comprehensive UK guide
Quick links: mobile broadband coverage checker
One of the most common questions we're asked is, 'what is the best mobile broadband coverage in my area?'
Unfortunately the individual networks won't let us put all their coverage data together into one handy tool (believe me, we've asked).
So, to see who has the best mobile broadband coverage in your area, here's the next best thing: links to the coverage checker tools provided by each network:
- 3 Mobile broadband coverage
- O2 mobile broadband coverage
- Orange mobile broadband coverage
- T-Mobile mobile broadband coverage (also powers Virgin Media)
- Vodafone mobile broadband coverage (also powers BT)
- EE mobile broadband coverage (including EE 4G)
Guide to mobile broadband coverage
It's important to remember that you are not guaranteed to be able to pick up mobile broadband coverage from anywhere around the country. Before you sign up to a mobile broadband package, it is absolutely vital you check the service provider's coverage information to make sure you will be able pick up a strong signal where you live. If you regularly travel to a different location to visit family, friends or for work, you'll also need to make sure that area is covered by your preferred provider too.
Because mobile broadband has become such an integral part of our lives, it's amazing to think most mobile broadband services have only been up and running for a relatively short time compared to fixed-line broadband. Because of this, the providers are rushing to improve the amount of the UK that has coverage, with more locations being added all the time.
For example, if you checked the Three mobile broadband coverage in your area six months ago, you may now be able to get a fantastic signal. There are lots of reasons for this, from popularity (if lots of people are trying to use mobile broadband in the same area, capacity can become an issue) to adding new towers or upgrading technology in your area.
What's the difference between 2G, 3G, 4G and HSDPA?
2G networks (also described as GSM) were designed primarily for voice and text, and are what your mobile phone conversations and text messages use to get from A to B. 2G networks are capable of transferring data, but only very slowly and unreliably. The addition of GPRS (sometimes called 2.5G) and EDGE technology have increased the quality of service. The maximum mobile broadband speed a 2G network is capable of is 473Kb.
3G networks are a progression from 2G and are primarily designed for data transfer. Standard 3G (sometimes called UMTS) is capable of speeds up to 2Mb. HSDPA improves 3G technology and is now used on all UK networks, with a theoretical limit of 10Mb. There is also a newer standard called DC-HSDPA which is gradually being rolled out and allows real-world speeds of 10Mb+. This is currently widely available on Three and also deployed on T-Mobile.
4G is the latest generation of mobile broadband and allows for speeds in excess of 20Mb. By the end of 2013 all the UK networks will have 4G coverage in the bigger cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester) and will be growing their networks across the UK, but presently coverage is patchy at best; where you can't get 4G, you'll just be shuffled back on to the best the local area can provide (usually 3G). Also, if you wish to use 4G you will almost certainly need a new phone or dongle as it is not supported by most devices.
The mobile broadband coverage map
Every mobile broadband provider has a coverage map which details which areas of the UK it covers for 2G and 3G services, as well as 4G where available: you can also check by postcode. There are links to all of the providers' coverage maps above.
The following map of 3G mobile coverage 'notspots' (the white areas, not covered by 3G) was published by telecoms regulator Ofcom in July 2009 and is a useful starting point to get a general idea of coverage but it is likely that services have improved even more in the time since, due to progressive network upgrades.
It's a very general map showing 3G coverage from all of the masts in the UK (4G is not currently depicted here). You can check the coverage of each supplier via their own mobile broadband coverage checkers - click on the ISP's logo below to go to its own national coverage page:
Which network has the best coverage?
EE is a joint effort from T-Mobile and Orange, which means it benefits from access to both networks signal, covering a huge swathe of the UK. EE claims to have the biggest, fastest network on the UK*, with 2G and HSDPA 3G rolled out to the majority of the UK. Its 4G coverage is expanding rapidly and is projected to offer 98 per cent coverage by 2015 (see coverage checker above for details).
O2 is now network sharing with Vodafone across the UK. Their combined 3G network covers most of the UK population and is entirely HSDPA. They began the rollout of their combined 4G network in August 2013, claiming they will have 98 per cent indoor 4G coverage in the next few years.
Orange: See EE.
Three's 3G network (which it claims is the fastest in the UK*) covers more than 98 per cent of the UK population, all of which is HSDPA. It begins its 4G rollout in 2013, with 98 per cent UK coverage planned by the end of 2015.
T-Mobile: See EE.
Virgin Media uses the T-Mobile/Orange network - see above.
Vodafone: See O2.
All of the UK mobile broadband networks offer 2G coverage of more than 99 per cent of the UK population, so if you can't get 3G coverage you should at least get some sort of mobile broadband signal. However, this could be very slow and unreliable.
* September 2013. Three's speed claim is for 3G, EE for 4G.