How good is Tesco Mobile?
TESCO Mobile are the UK's biggest virtual mobile operator, with around 4.6 million customers earning Clubcard points while they talk, text and tweet.
The MVNO launched in 2003 as a joint venture between Tesco and O2, with each owning a 50% share. As well as providing the infrastructure and signal in the UK, O2 also provide some of Tesco Mobile's customer service.
As well as offering rewards for something most of us do anyway, Tesco Mobile provide a huge range of pay monthly deals and a decent range of handsets.
But how much does it cost, and how's the service? Is Tesco Mobile a case of Everyday Value, or does it deserve the label of Finest?
One of the reasons we focus on the SIM-only deals when we're reviewing mobile operators is because it makes it simpler to see the range of usage plans available, and the kind of prices those plans are sold at.
Tesco believe in offering potential customers as much choice regarding their airtime plans as we'd have when buying washing up liquid.
All together, they offer 30 different SIM-only plans, from light use SIMs with no data up to 12GB of data with various call and text allowances, from one-month rolling contracts up to 18 month terms.
Tesco attempt to make it easier to navigate this vast number of deals by highlighting some as "super SIMs" or "recommended deals", which at the time of writing include the following:
This selection of tariffs is quite illustrative of the range of allowances available from Tesco Mobile. There's just one kind of mobile phone plan missing from this list: Tesco also sell two light use plans that include no mobile data whatsoever.
Every one of the plans comes with 5,000 texts, but when it comes to the calls and data allowance Tesco appear to have tried to cater for all manner of usage patterns: light to heavy use, relatively more minutes or data, or a good balance of both, and so on.
Take, for example, the range of plans offering 2GB of data per month:
There's most choice for those willing to sign up to a 12-month contract - but those who want supreme flexibility can choose from various one-month contracts, while those who don't mind committing for longer for less can pick from a handful of cheaper deals lasting 18 months.
As is fairly standard, the longer we're willing to sign up for, the cheaper the equivalent plans - here's how three different length contracts each offering 3,000 minutes and 5,000 texts compare:
|Calls and texts||Data||Contract length||Monthly price|
|3,000 minutes, 5,000 texts||2GB||One month||£17.50|
|3,000 minutes, 5,000 texts||2GB||12 months||£15|
|3,000 minutes, 5,000 texts||3GB||18 months||£15|
If, somehow, there isn't a suitable tariff among the 30 Tesco Mobile offer, we're then given the opportunity to upgrade to one of the higher data allowances Tesco offer, up to a maximum of 20GB per month.
Obviously, the more data we have in our basic bundle, the less the additional data will cost on top of our basic monthly bill.
As far as the SIM-only plans go, this is the only way to get the maximum 20GB data allowance.
On top of that, if we need extra data on a one-off basis, we can buy an add-on to last us until the end of that billing month:
Out of allowance charges
Beyond these predictable costs, what happens if we use up all of our allowance, or send an MMS instead of an SMS text?
Slightly disappointingly, calls to 0500 numbers, which are technically freephone, will cost users whether they have plenty of inclusive minutes left or not - but at least they're charged at a slightly cheaper rate than standard calls.
Beyond that, here's what out of allowance usage will cost:
|Type of usage||Cost|
|Calls to standard UK landlines and mobiles||25p/minute|
|Calls to 084, 087, 09, and 118 numbers||Access charge of 25p/minute|
|Calls to 0500 numbers||20p/minute|
|Calls to 080 numbers||Free|
|Picture messages (MMS)||25p each|
Tesco Mobile Xtras
Because Tesco Mobile sell so many different combinations of calls, texts, and data, it's usually possible to find a plan that suits our kind of mobile usage for a reasonable price. But certain customers can bring their monthly bill down further via Tesco Mobile Xtras.
Pay monthly users with an Android device running v4.0 or later, who have data included in their plan, can sign up to the service, which entitles them to £3 off their bill every month as long as they meet certain conditions.
They're not all that demanding - subscribers simply need not to mind being shown at least one piece of full screen content a day for at least 21 days in any one billing cycle.
The content flashes up when users unlock their phones; it may be an advert, offer, or something like an item from The Sun or The Times; users can click to ignore, save it to view later if it looks interesting, or click through to engage with it there and then.
Those with the Xtras app get an additional 200MB of data per month to cover the data they might use viewing that content.
Handsets from Tesco Mobile
At the time we're writing this review, Tesco Mobile say they have 40 handsets to choose from on their pay monthly plans - but note that they count the different versions of the recent iPhones as completely different phones, rather than as variations on the same model.
Of the 30 or so genuinely different models available, more than a third could be considered budget or low price devices, from a good variety of manufacturers.
There's actually more choice at the lower end of the range - those looking for a top end phone are pretty much limited to the most recent Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S devices; anyone looking for the likes of the LG G5 or the Huawei P9 is out of luck.
In fact, even among the mid-range phones, it's mostly slightly cheaper or older Samsungs and the older iPhones (at the time of writing it's still possible to get the iPhone 5S); there are only a couple of Sony Xperias and the odd HTC to break the monotony.
It's a similar situation when it comes to the choice of handsets available on pay as you go terms, although there's a greater emphasis on budget models - including a good selection of Nokia devices.
As with all of Tesco's other branded offshoots, there are rewards for loyalty in the form of Clubcard points.
Customers need to register their Clubcard to their mobile, which should just be a case of calling an automated service and following the prompts.
After that, pay monthly customers have the smug glow of knowing that every full pound they spend with Tesco Mobile will earn one Clubcard point.
Pay as you go customers will also one Clubcard point per pound spent, as long as they top up in particular ways: there are no points available for top-ups made at cash machines or any e-top-ups at stores other than Tesco.
The silver lining for pay as you go customers is that as handsets bought from Tesco Mobile - via Tesco Direct - are eligible for points, buying a new phone could boost their Clubcard balance quite considerably.
Tesco Mobile use O2's network to provide their signal. That gives them solid, if not complete, coverage across most of the UK.
In percentage terms, Ofcom's 2016 Connected Nations Report showed that O2 now have decent voice and data coverage for almost all of the UK population, although as the figures below show they're still lagging in geographic terms:
|Voice calls (2G and 3G)||Combined 3G and 4G data|
SOURCE: Ofcom Connected Nations Report 2016. Available here.
They've made large strides regarding their geographic coverage in the past few years; it's one of their licence conditions that they can offer strong voice call coverage to 90% of the geographic UK, and 4G indoor coverage to 98% of the population, by the end of 2017.
That's helped by the fact that they use the 800MHz frequency, which is particularly well suited to covering wide areas and penetrating obstacles like walls, trees and small hills.
So while O2 still lag behind their big network rivals in percentage terms, where they do have a signal it tends to be stronger and more reliable than all but Vodafone's.
Take a look at the graph below. Released by Ofcom in December 2016, it shows the number of complaints they received, per 100,000 customers for each of the biggest UK mobile networks in the past eight quarters.
Pay monthly mobile network complaints per 100,000 customers: Q4 2014 - Q3 2016
SOURCE: Ofcom Telecoms and Pay TV complaints Q3 2016. Available here.
Tesco Mobile are represented by that long green line running along the bottom of the graph; rounded to the nearest number, they received just one complaint per 100,000 customers in the three months ending September 2016.
Not only is this consistently fewer than any other provider, it's consistently fewer than the network operator that provides both their signal and their remote customer service.
It's possible that they perform better because their frontline customer care is provided in store by Tesco staff; their phone support is outsourced to O2, as is the team dealing with official complaints.
While Tesco Mobile have won various awards for value and coverage - the latter seems a little unfair as they're using someone else's network to provide it - in terms of customer service, they seem to fare best in terms of word of mouth recommendations.
Tesco's supermarket background comes through in their commitment to plenty of choice, with a dizzying array of combinations of texts, minutes and data, all for quite reasonable prices.
Their mobile selection is less impressive - but they win points for having a broader range of budget and lower end handsets than most providers.
It'll be interesting to see how popular the Xtras app turns out to be, relying as it does on customers being willing to put up with full screen adverts and offers flashing up every few times they unlock their devices.
Those features suggest that Tesco are aiming more for an Everyday Value approach to their mobile service - but whether customers find it cheap and cheerful or among the Finest depends on whether they're in an area with good O2 network coverage.