State of Mobile Networks: UK (April 2016)

The U.K. mobile industry is entering another year of consolidation, which could see the once crowded market reduced to just three operators. While 3 and O2 prepare to merge, we're witnessing both action and inaction from the country's operators. On the one hand, new network upgrades are boosting speed and pushing technology boundaries, but on the other, the U.K.'s already poor LTE availability shows only minimal signs of improvement. We partnered with leading consumer advocate Which? to take a closer look at the current state of U.K. mobile networking, drawing on 60 million measurements taken between November and January.


3 makes big gains in speed

New network upgrades gave 3 a substantial LTE performance boost at the end of 2015, so much that 3's LTE network is challenging EE's LTE-Advanced network in terms of speed. But given 3’s poor 4G availability, customers spent a good deal of their time on 3G networks, impacting its overall mobile data speeds.

EE beats out its peers in 4G availability

EE may have a new rival in LTE speed, but it's still leading the pack in availability. From November to January, its 4G customers were able to connect to an LTE signal 61% of the time. EE was the only operator for which we measured an availability metric greater than 60% during this testing period.

Overall UK 4G availability is scarce

Though EE led the pack in 4G availability, no operator in the U.K. was able to deliver a truly consistent LTE signal. In our most recent State of LTE report, U.K. operators combined had an average 4G availability of just 53%, a particularly poor showing considering at least 39 countries offered availability of 60% or greater.

Operators still lean heavily on 3G

With 4G availability poor, U.K. operators are relying on their 3G networks to pick up the slack. Luckily the U.K. has a well-developed HSPA+ infrastructure with average speeds exceeding the global average.

Opensignal Awards Table

Download Speed: 4G Download Speed: 3G Download Speed: Overall Latency: 4G Latency: 3G Availability: 4G


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Performance by Metric

Download Speed: 4G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on LTE connections as measured by Opensignal users.

Download Speed: 3G

This metric shows the average download speed for each operator on 3G connections as measured by Opensignal users.

Download Speed: Overall

This metric shows the average download speed experienced by Opensignal users across all of an operator's 3G and 4G networks. Overall speed doesn't just factor in 3G and LTE speeds, but also the availability of each network technology. Operators with lower LTE availability tend to have lower overall speeds because their customers spend more time connected to slower 3G networks.

Latency: 4G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on LTE connections as measured by Opensignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Latency: 3G

This metric shows the average latency for each operator on 3G connections as measured by Opensignal users. Latency, measured in milliseconds, is the delay data experiences as it makes a round trip through the network. A lower score in this metric is a sign of a more responsive network.

Availability: 4G

This metric shows the proportion of time Opensignal users have an LTE connection available to them on each operator’s network. It's a measure of how often users can access a 4G network rather than a measure of geographic or population coverage.


While some countries are struggling to catch up with the rest of the world in 4G speed, the U.K. has an entirely different problem. U.K. LTE networks keep getting faster, but LTE availability just isn't advancing at the same pace. While regulators and operators are already looking ahead to the 5G data networks of the future, mobile consumers today are still spending nearly half their time connected to 3G networks.

We teamed up with consumer champion Which? to publish the first installment of our semi-annual State of Mobile Networks report for the U.K. In it we examine the mobile data performance of the country's four nationwide operators: 3, EE, O2 and Vodafone. First, let's take a look at speed.

3's big LTE punch

The biggest surprise in our data was the progress 3 has made in boosting the capacity of its LTE networks. Last autumn, 3 announced a series of LTE upgrades. It launched LTE in a new band (800 MHz) to support its new voice-over-LTE service, and it plowed more spectrum onto its original 4G network. The result was a doubling of LTE capacity, and the effects were quite dramatic. In our September Global LTE report, we measured 3's 4G download average at 12 Mbps. But between November and January, our data shows a jump in speed to 18.7 Mbps.

For the same time period, our tests clocked EE's LTE download speeds at 17.8 Mbps, which was close enough to 3's average 4G speed to put both operators in a statistical tie. EE’s greater LTE availability, however, meant that its customers spent far more time connected to 4G than 3’s customers, who were forced to contend with 3G or lesser links more than half the time. When OpenSignal calculated the download speed experienced by customers across all of an operator’s networks between November and January, EE came out ahead with an average of 11.1 Mbps, compared to 3’s average of 9.1 Mbps.

Still, 3’s LTE improvement is notable. On paper at least, EE should have a much faster network than 3. EE has upgraded portions of its 4G network with new spectrum and new LTE-Advanced technologies, which theoretically can support more than double the speed of 3's network. That said, there are plenty of explanations why 3 is now rivaling its larger competitor. EE's upgraded network — which it calls 4G+ — is only available in London and a few other major U.K. cities, meaning many of EE's 4G subscribers are still accessing its older, more modest network. Finally, EE has triple the number of customers as 3, which means it has many more devices competing for its 4G capacity. Whatever the specific reason, the country's biggest operator now seems to be in a race with its smallest operator to provide the most souped-up 4G connection — with EE holding the advantage due to its superior availability. In the same timeframe, O2 and Vodafone were locked in a similar battle for the title of third fastest operator, both delivering average LTE download speeds of about 12 Mbps.

Hunting for a 4G signal

3's new network rollout may have provided a big boost in 4G speed, but we aren’t seeing those upgrades produce a substantial boost in 3’s availability. Our three months of measurements showed 3 with the worst LTE availability in the U.K. at 40%. Our availability metric (*) tracks the proportion of time OpenSignal users spend connected to a particular network, so in 3's case its 4G customers saw an LTE signal 40% of the time. That's quite low, but you couldn't accuse any of the U.K.'s operators of having particularly good availability. EE turned in the best performance for this report with 61% availability, while Vodafone and O2 had scores of 57% and 56% respectively.

Internationally the U.K. ranks near the bottom of the list of 4G countries in terms of availability. It shares that notoriety with several other Western European countries, including France, Ireland, Germany and Italy, all of whom have been fairly slow to extend the reach of their 4G networks. Meanwhile in Northern Europe, LTE availability is already surpassing 70%, and in a few European countries like the Netherlands and Hungary, LTE connections are nearly as easy to find as 3G connections.

3G to the rescue

With LTE availability so poor, U.K. mobile subscribers are spending a lot of time on 3G networks. Fortunately most U.K. operators have quality HSPA+ networks to lean on. Our data showed that 3, EE and Vodafone all delivered 3G download speeds faster than the global average of 3.5 Mbps. That well-developed 3G infrastructure might be one of the explanations for why the U.K. has been slow to invest in 4G coverage. At the beginning of the millennium, the U.K. mobile industry spent billions of pounds on 3G licenses and network rollouts, yet the expected deluge in mobile data use didn't come until nearly a decade later. Operators may be wary about repeating such massive investments in the 4G era, especially if they can still offer a decent 3G service.

For this report, we also took a close look at latency, which essentially measures the time it takes data to make a round trip through the network. Low latencies mean faster reaction times right after you click on a link and less delay in real-time communications apps. Latency is key to voice over LTE, with which all U.K. operators are currently experimenting. In the three months tested, we measured the lowest LTE latency on 3 and EE's 4G networks. 3 is the only operator with a commercial VoLTE service in the U.K. while EE is now conducting nationwide VoLTE trials.

By the time our second U.K. State of Mobile Networks report comes out this summer, a whole lot may have changed. 3 and O2 may become a single, unified operator in six months, which could give a boost to their combined network's speed and availability. EE and Vodafone could expand LTE-Advanced beyond their current limited footprints, which — coupled with a new wave of LTE-Advanced capable smartphones in the market — could boost their LTE speeds considerably. The status quo can change very quickly in the world of 4G — just ask 3.

(*) Editor’s note: When this report was originally published OpenSignal used the term time coverage for what is now our availability metric. We changed the name to avoid confusion of this metric with geographic and population coverage metrics, and we have reflected that change in our old reports. The new terminology, however, does not reflect a new methodology. Time coverage and availability represent the same measurement: the proportion of time OpenSignal users can connect to a particular network.

Our Methodology

Opensignal measures the real-world experience of consumers on mobile networks as they go about their daily lives. We collect 3 billion individual measurements every day from tens of millions of smartphones worldwide.

Our measurements are collected at all hours of the day, every day of the year, under conditions of normal usage, including inside buildings and outdoors, in cities and the countryside, and everywhere in between. By analyzing on-device measurements recorded in the places where subscribers actually live, work and travel, we report on mobile network service the way users truly experience it.

We continually adapt our methodology to best represent the changing experience of consumers on mobile networks and, therefore, comparisons of the results to past reports should be considered indicative only. For more information on how we collect and analyze our data, see our methodology page.

For this particular report, 60,436,228 datapoints were collected from 31,525 users during the period: 2015-11-01 - 2016-01-31.

For every metric we've calculated statistical confidence intervals and plotted them on all of the graphs. When confidence intervals overlap for a certain metric, our measured results are too close to declare a winner in a particular category. In those cases, we show a statistical draw. For this reason, some metrics have multiple operator winners.

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