Study of the UK Mobile Market

A first look at the mobile networks in the United Kingdom

At Netradar, we focus on understanding how mobile networks really work from the consumer’s point of view. We analyze the daily experience of consumers while they use various data services and apps. How well do the mobile operators serve their customers in the UK then? Well, read on.

The UK market has four main network operators, that have their own physical network. Let’s name them simply A, B, C and D for now. We looked at how well the networks match the data needs of consumers, what speeds are people likely to experience, and how do the operators use different frequencies in building their networks.

For this analysis and blog post, we took a sample of 100 Million data sessions from the Netradar database during the past two months.

For us, the key metric we have developed is “Service Level Score (SLS)” (see the previous post on a deeper discussion). The Netradar hybrid measurement technology is able to distinguish, does the network satisfy my data needs fully or is my bit rate being limited by the network? Typically this happens because of a congested mobile network or due to simply bad coverage. The philosophy behind our work and the technology developed initially at the Aalto University is that at the end of the day looking at simple bit rates does not really tell how well am I being served, do I get what I need in terms of bit rate. You can see this as the service level of the operator: do I get what I need, when and where I need it, or do I need to queue up to get served? So am I satisfied, or not?

On average 77.5% of UK mobile use is satisfied by the network (so, in reverse, 22.5% of use runs into networks limiting their data speeds). However, there is a big difference between operators.

So, if you are a customer of Operator A, you are getting the best service from your operator, while if you use Operator D, well, you have the worst service in the country.

We can also look at the old metrics like top speeds people experience in their daily cellular network usage. As Netradar looks at the daily usage, and does not only try to find the network maximum itself, people rarely need several tens of Mbit/s to/from their apps. Typically people in UK need some 6 Mbis/s of download speed and 2 Mbit/s for sending data on the upstream. The reason is that over cellular networks, UK consumers use rather light apps in terms of network usage, and do heavier streaming over WLAN.

Here are some of the more traditional metrics to compare operators:

These more traditional metrics of network quality show a similar story in that Operator A has the best mobile network in terms of download speed. The different is not that huge, though. Upload speeds are best in Operator D’s network, although the difference is small. Network latencies are similar, Operator D leading here, though, which would indicate that they have a different configuration in their network than the competition.

These numbers are for 3G and 4G service combined. We can also separate 4G/LTE and see if there are differences in the state of the art service offered by the players. Here are the numbers of 4G only:

It is interesting to compare these tables. Operator A is still leading with the best national 4G service. Operator B seems to have a very congested 4G mobile network, and surprisingly Operator D is not far from the leading player. Operator D’s network latencies are also the best.

One important concept to separate here is usage location vs geographic network quality. In the previous results, we looked at usage sessions of UK consumers. As most people leave and work in cities and metropolitan areas, the results are highly tied to these urban and suburban areas.

The Netradar database can also reveal the quality of the networks on a geographic level. We can calculate national network quality across the country by making all areas, urban, suburban and rural, equal. Thus, we can see the quality of each mobile network without e.g. giving London a higher impact on the results. This would describe much better the geographic quality of a mobile operator, the average service you could expect around the country, and not simply in major urban areas. Here are the numbers for 4G with equal geographic distribution:

The results are similar to the above, but some differences can be noticed. On a national level, networks are slightly better, we can see the networks being a limiting factor a bit less. Top speeds are a bit lower and the latencies very similar.

In summary, there is clearly one player with a good mobile network that works all around the country. The three other contenders are more equal, yet, Operator D looks good in terms of 4G service.

In future posts, we will look at the daily usage patterns of UK consumers, and can shed some light on how the operators build they networks, how coverage is designed using the different frequency bands (800, 1800, 2100 and 2600 MHz).