According to the most recent Ofcom figures, 8% of the UK's landmass isn't covered by a 4G signal from any operator.
Yet EE are doing the best overall by reaching 86% of the UK, while Vodafone also perform well in some key areas.
With a Shared Rural Network agreement signed and sealed, we can expect 4G coverage to increase in the coming years, albeit not quickly enough for some frustrated customers.
At a glance
|Best for overall 4G coverage||EE|
|Best in urban areas||Vodafone|
|Best in rural areas||EE|
|Best in England||EE|
|Best in Northern Ireland||Vodafone|
|Best in Scotland||Vodafone|
|Best in Wales||EE|
|Best for 5G||EE|
At the top level, these coverage figures can help us see which provider has the most geographical (landmass) coverage and the highest levels of indoor coverage.
These are the figures from Ofcom's Connected Nations 2021 report:
|4G geographical coverage||86%||80%||79%||82%|
|4G indoor coverage||93%||95%||90%||95%|
Ofcom noted in the previous year's report that EE was the first operator to reach 85% and they've gone 1% further in the most recent data.
This comes in part from their history as two separate networks (T-Mobile and Orange) along with their acquisition by BT in 2016 which allowed them to use BT's infrastructure as well.
So, it's no surprise to see EE ahead of their rivals here, but it's worth noting they made some big promises about expanding their 4G coverage back in 2015 - and they failed to meet them.
They wanted their 4G network to cover 95% of the UK's landmass by 2020, a target that would've involved a 30% increase in coverage and was, as we discussed at the time, rather ambitious.
It isn't surprising it was missed, although EE have clearly made more progress than their competitors at expanding their 4G footprint across the UK. We've got more on those industry efforts below.
Meanwhile, effective indoor coverage is arguably something that matters to more customers every day, and EE is slightly behind on that.
O2 and Vodafone, thanks to a long-standing infrastructure sharing agreement, are ahead of both EE and Three, meaning customers are slightly more likely to get a signal indoors with those networks.
Yet the picture varies massively in urban and rural locations, as well as across the four nations, so let's look at the situation in a little more depth.
Urban mobile coverage
Customers in towns and cities are targeted first by providers whenever new technology is rolled out because these urban centres allow operators to serve the most customers at once (and therefore make more of a profit on their infrastructure deployment too).
Urban coverage, then, is high across all operators as we can see from the table:
|4G geographical coverage||99%||99%||99%||99%|
|4G indoor coverage||96%||97%||94%||98%|
Again, customers looking for a strong indoor signal may lean towards Vodafone or O2, and both these operators are significantly ahead of Three.
The reality in urban centres is that customers can usually find an operator with full indoor and outdoor coverage, but that isn't always the case for customers living beyond towns and cities.
How does rural mobile coverage compare across the networks?
Rural mobile coverage
A glance at the table below immediately shows the coverage differences customers in rural areas have to deal with compared to those in urban areas:
|4G geographical coverage||84%||78%||77%||80%|
|4G indoor coverage||79%||80%||69%||76%|
Geographically, the best operator again is EE, but their 4G network still misses 16% of the UK's landmass. The other operators are even further behind, especially Three who are missing across 23% of the UK.
It's worth noting overall coverage is slightly better, so most of the UK does have access to a signal from at least one operator:
- 92% of the UK as a whole has access to 4G from one operator or more
- 91% of rural landmass has 4G coverage from at least one operator
However, that's not incredibly useful for customers who don't have a signal from their preferred operator in the areas where they spend a lot of time.
Despite repeated pushes towards sharing infrastructure over the years, it was only in 2020 that networks finally agreed to the fine print of a Shared Rural Network, where infrastructure of one provider can be used to provide signal for other operators.
We've got more detail on that later in this guide, but it should help customers in rural areas in the future access more than one network (if one network is indeed available).
It may also help the 18% of smartphone users in farming areas access 4G in the future who said in 2021 that they couldn't get a signal.
Across the nations
Mobile coverage isn't equal across the four nations of the UK thanks to the differences in geography when we look at Scotland and Wales.
The rule of thumb is that England and Northern Ireland's coverage figures are generally better than Scotland and Wales', so how does that hold up according to Ofcom's most decent figures and how do the different operators compare?
Customers in urban areas in England have plenty of choice when it comes to mobile network coverage, but Vodafone seems to be the network to beat with extraordinarily high figures for both 4G geographical and 4G indoor coverage:
It's clear, though, that EE remain a better option for customers in rural areas or for those who pass through them regularly on their way to other places.
As for 4G indoor coverage in England, O2 are ahead, partly thanks to their spectrum usage which we'll cover later:
Three have the poorest urban and rural coverage figures in England, something that reflects the national picture.
97% of mobile customers in Northern Ireland have access to 4G services from at least one operator outdoors while 98% are covered by at least one operator indoors.
The geographical breakdown for the four mobile networks is:
And this is how the 4G indoor picture looks:
For Northern Ireland mobile customers, then, Vodafone looks like the better option, especially now they're level on geographical coverage with Three.
Scotland's landscape includes some of the most difficult areas to reach, so it's unsurprising rural coverage figures across the country are comparatively low.
Again, Three are the poorest network in Scotland:
Geographical coverage across urban centres still holds up well across all operators, and this is seen too when we look at 4G indoor coverage:
Once more, Vodafone hold up well against their rivals, especially in urban areas, meaning they're a top choice for many customers in Scotland.
Wales, like Scotland, has plenty of coverage obstacles in rural areas, and their geographical coverage figures reflect that:
Surprisingly, it's EE (followed at a distance by Three) who provide more rural coverage in Wales, although O2 and Vodafone catch up a little on urban coverage.
Meanwhile, the best 4G indoor coverage in Wales is provided by EE with O2 running in second place:
Ultimately, the picture in Wales (and across all four nations) varies from postcode to postcode, so it's important for customers to check coverage levels in the areas where they spend a lot of time to assess whether a specific network is going to be useful to them.
Shared Rural Network
In March 2020, all four mobile networks agreed a deal with the Government to increase overall mobile coverage across the UK to 95% by the end of 2025.
The Shared Rural Network (SRN) agreement has been a long time in development, but it aims to improve coverage from at least one operator to 95% with the following specific targets for each of the four nations:
- Scotland - 91% from at least one operator, 74% from all
- Wales - 95% from at least one operator, 80% from all
- Northern Ireland - 98% from at least one operator, 85% from all
- England - 98% from at least one operator, 90% from all
As we can see, Scotland and Wales could still have significantly lower coverage from all operators than the other nations by the end of 2025, but the way the SRN is being developed should go some way towards mitigating that.
For example, 222 new masts covering 280,000 more premises and 16,000km of roads will be built in a combined effort between O2, Three and Vodafone by 2024.
Meanwhile, EE announced they were upgrading a total of 579 of their 4G sites by the end of 2021. All these sites will be made available to other networks under the SRN.
We've already seen some of the impact of that on annual coverage figures with improvements between the 2020 Connected Nations report and the most recent edition.
In many of the tables we've featured above, EE has improved by a percentage point or more, demonstrating their 4G expansions.
The Government is also hoping to change planning rules to allow for taller masts, meaning signals will reach further without additional infrastructure being needed.
So, coverage improvements are coming to rural areas and shared infrastructure is becoming more of a reality in hard to reach locations.
What about 5G?
5G services began to be rolled out in 2019, and coverage has reached many areas so far.
These are the headline figures of the towns, cities and other locations covered by the 5G networks of the four mobile operators:
|Number of towns and cities|
As we can see, O2 is ostensibly ahead in the number of areas where they've switched on 5G services, but the reality on the ground is that 5G coverage in specific locations is limited.
We've got RootMetrics data covering the second half of 2021 which shows how 5G availability is shaping up across 16 major cities across the UK:
|Leeds & Bradford||31.2%||25.6%||33.4%||18.7%|
5G availability in these major cities has improved massively compared to a year ago, and we now have testing data for all locations from all operators.
The highest level of availability came from Vodafone in Liverpool (59.6%), but they also had some low availability hotspots in Leicester (3.3%) and Nottingham (0.5%)
Overall, EE seem to have the best availability in the big cities, but whether their sustained effort to improve infrastructure goes beyond the big urban centres can only be answered by those on the ground.
They have plans to extend 5G to 90% of the UK population by 2028, although we would issue a reminder that they failed in their last major commitment to expand 4G, so it's something to keep an eye on.
The Government hopes that a majority of the population will have access to 5G from at least one operator by 2027, but there is little detail on how much of a majority they expect to be able to receive it. So, it could be 51% or it could be 80%; we're waiting on more information from the Government on strict targets.
5G coverage will become more important in the future yet, for now, it's a luxury service available to some customers - but not that many and not all the time.
Find out more about 5G and which network is best for it.
The role of frequency
Even in those lucky areas where availability and signal strength are strong for each network, there's one further factor that can affect how good our mobile coverage is: the network frequency.
It's this factor that affects whether we can use our phones indoors, or at some distance from the nearest mast, and how well the mobile service holds up when it's busy.
Each network operator has access to spectrum within the following frequencies:
- EE: 800MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2600MHz, 3400MHz
- O2: 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2300MHz, 3400MHz
- Three: 800MHz, 1400MZh, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 3400MHz, 3600-4000MHz
- Vodafone: 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2600MHz, 3400MHz
The different frequency bands have different properties that make them better for different kinds of mobile coverage. For example:
- 800MHz (4G): Travels long distances well and penetrates walls. Low capacity.
- 900MHz (2G and 3G): Good for long distances and rural areas. Goes around hills and trees.
- 1800MHz (2G and 4G): Suited for densely populated areas and greater network load.
- 2100MHz (3G): Doesn't penetrate buildings well and requires lots of cell sites.
- 2600MHz (4G): High capacity. Short range and easily blocked.
- 3400MHz (5G): High frequencies suitable for 5G networks.
According to O2's 800MHz licence, by the end of 2017 the provider had to meet a target of 98% coverage for all UK premises (voice and text), and this obligation has been made in full.
Their 800MHz frequency is ideal for this goal. That's because it's good at penetrating even thick walls and covering the long distances that make serving rural areas a challenge.
Its ability to penetrate obstacles also makes it useful in built up areas. However, because it's low capacity, O2 customers may find they struggle to get a consistent signal or connection when the network is busy - in towns or at peak hours, for example.
The 2600MHz frequency, on the other hand, is ideal for dealing with high volumes of data traffic. This is great in busy towns and cities where there are lots of people trying to use their data connections all at once. However, it's not as good at getting past obstructions, so the indoors signal isn't always that strong.
The 1800MHz frequency strikes something of a balance between the other frequency bands. It works well in densely populated areas and doesn't struggle with a heavy network load.
Those of us in rural areas are better off with a network that uses lower frequencies, such as O2.
Know your MVNOs
If one of the four mobile networks has good coverage but customers don't want to go direct to them, there can be another option: sign up with a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) instead.
These networks don't operate their own infrastructure. Instead, they pay to access the network of one of the four operators in the UK which means the coverage statistics we've discussed in this guide are relevant to MVNOs too.
These are the networks used by big-name MVNOs:
- Asda Mobile use Vodafone's network
- BT Mobile uses EE's network
- giffgaff use O2's network
- iD Mobile use Three's network
- Lebara Mobile use Vodafone's network
- Lycamobile use O2's network
- Plusnet Mobile use EE's network
- Sky Mobile use O2's network
- SMARTY use Three's network
- Tesco Mobile use O2's network
- Virgin Mobile use Vodafone's network (switching from EE)
- VOXI use Vodafone's network
Some of these networks will offer more competitive SIM only deals than mobile network operators (MNOs), so be sure to compare deals from multiple mobile operators when making a decision on which mobile plan is right for your needs.
Verdict: improvements on the way
Mobile coverage across the UK is a mixed picture, but one set to improve in the coming years thanks to the SRN.
Even when the targets enshrined in that agreement are met, though, there will still be plenty of customers who can only access decent services from one or two operators, limiting their ability to access the best deals available to UK mobile customers.
MVNOs are an excellent option for customers looking for cheaper deals via smaller networks piggybacking off the MNOs, but remember also to consider things like mobile customer service as well as price and coverage to get the best deal for your needs.
As for 5G coverage, consistent availability is still the preserve of the lucky few and is set to remain so for the foreseeable future. We'll continue to wait for clarification from the Government about 5G coverage targets for the years ahead.