This guide covers the top nine mobile phone networks, which account for 98% of the UK market, as well as one alternative: The Phone Co-op. Another alternative provider, The People's Operator (TPO), went bust on 26 February 2019 after 7 years of trading.
The biggest four providers, with about 70% of market share, are:
EE (now owned by BT), with about 25% of customers; O2 with 20%; Vodafone with 15%; Three with 10%.
These four also provide the network infrastructure, which other providers ‘piggyback’ on. In the table below we have taken an average of the combined scores of the brands and the network they operate on. This average score doesn’t change the relative position of any of them in the main table. Tesco Mobile is half owned by O2 and uses the O2 network.
The Phone Co-op uses EE: average score 11
Talk Talk uses Vodafone: average score 8
Virgin uses EE: average score 7.25
Since our last report on mobile networks in 2013, several companies have been gobbled up or given up. Green Mobile has been taken over by Excell Group and did not respond to our emails so are no longer included as an alternative provider. WWF Wildlife mobile is no more, Sainsbury’s no longer offers mobile contracts, and Orange and T-Mobile were retired by EE, which was then bought by BT in January 2016.
The are two main ways of buying a mobile phone:
- A pay-as-you-go deal where you buy your own phone and pay for each call, text or time you spend on the internet.
- A monthly contract where you pay a set amount each month, usually by direct debit, and either get a phone ‘free’ or a SIM Only deal which you can use with any phone.
Within these two options there are literally hundreds of different deals available (Orange alone has 28 different monthly contract plans). You could liken it to the energy market, where different providers blind you with complicated alternatives and try to lock you into deals for anything up to 24 months.
The Which? website, used in conjunction with our own ethical information, is a useful guide.
For mobile handsets we’ve picked best buys that cover a range of prices. The Fairphone, which you can pre-order now before its release in December, is £280. You can get a Nokia feature phone for as little as £16. A new iPhone will cost upwards of £400.
If you choose a contract on our best buy network O2, you can get an older iPhone model for around £17 per month with 300 minutes, unlimited texts and 500MB of data for surfing the net.
You can get a SIM Only contract with Green Mobile for £10 per month with 50 minutes talk time and 50 texts. You can get 500MB of data for an extra £7.50 per month.
The Co-operative do a SIM Only deal for £15 per month this includes 100 minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB of data.
O2’s cheapest SIM Only deal is £8 per month for 100 minutes, unlimited texts and 100MB of data.