This guide looks at 22 mobile phone networks. The Big Four (O2, EE, Three, and Vodafone) have their own mobile network infrastructure. The other operators are called ‘Virtual Mobile Network Operators’ (VMNO) as they provide services by ‘piggy-backing’ on the others’ infrastructure.
The Big Four have similar scores apart from Three. Their Ethiscore ratings in this guide are:
- Vodafone: 7.5
- EE: 6
- O2: 6
- Three: 3
Apart from the very top and bottom of the score table, there is not much to separate most of the networks.
The major issue in the industry is tax avoidance, of which much more below. We have focused on Vodafone, once synonymous with tax avoidance, and Lycamobile for tax because although they both appear near the top of the score table, this position belies their still dubious tax practices.
What’s new in the mobile phone network?
We last looked at mobile phone networks in 2019. The Big Four (EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) continue to dominate the market overall with just over half of all customers. EE still has the biggest individual market share (18%) but O2 is close behind followed by Vodafone and then Three lagging with only 9% of the market.
But there have been a number of changes:
- Honest Mobile is a new entry which markets itself as the most sustainable network and claims to be carbon negative. See more below.
- Virgin Media and O2, two of the biggest names in the telecoms industry, have merged in what was the UK’s biggest telecoms deal to become, surprise surprise, Virgin Media O2. The merger will mean that they will become the biggest network.
- Vodafone has been in talks with CK Hutchison to merge with Three – so there could soon only be three actual networks in the UK.
Which phone networks piggyback on whom?
The table below, ranked by combined score, shows the actual networks used by each VMNO and what effect this relationship has on the network’s Ethiscore.
The most obvious effect is that Honest Mobile drops from the top of the table due to it piggybacking on the lowest scoring actual network, Three.
|Virtual Mobile Network Operator||Actual network||Average of the combined score of VMNO and network|
|VOXI||Vodafone||7.5 – Vodafone owns Voxi|
|Talkmobile||Vodafone||7.5 – Vodafone owns Talkmobile|
|Virgin Mobile*||Vodafone/O2||6.75 using Vodafone, 6 on O2|
|Plusnet||EE||6 – Plusnet is owned by BT which owns EE|
|BT Mobile||EE||6 – BT owns EE|
|Giffgaff||O2||6 – Virgin Media O2 owns Giffgaff|
|Smarty||Three||3 – Three owns Smarty|
(*) Some existing customers (or those on other deals) will still be on the EE network, until they're moved over to Vodafone throughout 2022. But now that Virgin Media and O2 have merged it is likely that Virgin Mobile will soon be using the O2 network.