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UK 4G Report
Differences in 4G by Location

UK 4G Report - In Partnershop with OpenSignal
Rob Hodges - Mobiles.co.uk UK 4G Report

Penned by
Rob Hodges

Introduction

In October 2014, Ofcom's Communications Infrastructure Report highlighted significant differences in 4G coverage between urban and countryside areas. The big four (That's O2, EE, Vodafone and 3) have their 4G infrastructure plans underway, and have been set strict Government targets to reach 98% of the UK population by 2017. It makes sense for networks to prioritise built-up-areas so more customers have access to 4G sooner.

This report, in partnership with Open Signal (providers of our UK 4G coverage map) identifies differences in 4G coverage across 28 built-up-areas within England & Wales.

View 4G Coverage Map

Process & methodology

Available to download on Android and iPhone devices, the OpenSignal mobile app collects anonymous data on network reception and download speeds. Examining data from 28 built-up locations across England and Wales, we were able to extrapolate differences in coverage by location. Networks with insufficient data collected, have been omitted on a per location basis. The data is based on over 30,000 crowd sourced users from the UK, and offers a reflection of actual user experience and at specified locations.


Network speed data is collated from tests run by OpenSignal users, who can check the quality of their connection by using the app. Background tests carried out during mobile usage, offer representative data of all times and locations.

4G download speed (Mbps) and Time on LTE (%) were ranked at each location by network and the leading value was used in the report. Confidence Intervals were used to identify significance between the leading network and second place. Where statistical confidence was insignificant, the readings of joint leading values were recorded as an average.

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Connectivity time on 4G

Five UK built up areas cater stable 4G coverage to their population more than 70% of the time.

Percentage of Time on 4G by Built Up Area

Four urban areas delivered 4G coverage less than 50% of the time. Despite Ofcom reporting these regions as having between 80-100% premise coverage, the countryside surrounding Kingston upon Hull, Plymouth and Teesside all offer less stable coverage between 20-60%. The BUAs higher up in our rankings, tend to be surrounded by other urban areas, implying clusters where multiple BUAs exist benefit from greater network stability.

As the more mature 4G Network, EE delivers the most consistent 4G coverage. Of the 28 cities, EE were clear winners across 19, tied with Vodafone on 4 and once with O2.

Wins by Network Across 28 Built Up Areas

UK 4G download speed

Speed is a key selling point the networks promote to persuade customers onto 4G tariffs. Streaming music, browsing the web, uploading videos; they're all faster on a 4G connection but how much does your speed differ based on where you live?

The OpenSignal data reveals that average 4G speeds in Teesside are over 4x slower than that of Liverpool and Brighton & Hove. Comparing networks, EE were the fastest network outright 13 times (plus 7 ties in other locations).

Comparison of Download Speeds (Mbps) by Built up Area

"Depending on where you live in the UK, the reality of 4G experience can vary significantly. Video streaming on 4G is 4x faster in Liverpool compared to Teesside."

Rob Hodges, Mobiles.co.uk

Wins by Network Across 25 Built Up Areas

Segmenting by network

Filtering download speeds by network, allows us to understand how developed the big four are across different locations across the UK.

EE Phone Network
Fastest Speed
Brighton & Hove 24.19 Mbps
Liverpool 21.34 Mbps
Stoke-on-Trent 19.48 Mbps
EE Phone Network
Slowest Speed
Birkenhead 3.92 Mbps
Kingston upon Hull 6.48 Mbps
Luton 7.15 Mbps
Three Phone Network
Fastest Speed
Southend on Sea 11.60 Mbps
Coventry 10.43 Mbps
Brighton & Hove 9.52 Mbps
Three Phone Network
Slowest Speed
Teesside 4.98 Mbps
Sheffield 5.51 Mbps
South Hampshire 5.53 Mbps
O2 Phone Network
Fastest Speed
Brighton & Hove 18.90 Mbps
Bournemouth/Poole 14.41 Mbps
Nottingham 13.80 Mbps
O2 Phone Network
Slowest Speed
Birkenhead 8.0 Mbps
Liverpool 8.26 Mbps
Greater Manchester 8.35 Mbps
Vodafone Phone Network
Fastest Speed
Sheffield 16.66 Mbps
Brighton & Hove 15.99 Mbps
Reading 14.12 Mbps
Vodafone Phone Network
Slowest Speed
West Yorkshire 6.77 Mbps
Bournemouth/Poole 10.48 Mbps
Tyneside 11.15 Mbps

EE is clearly leading the way when it comes to the fastest 4G speeds. As the first network to launch 4G within the UK, their period of exclusivity throughout 2013 gave EE a head start. 3 on the other hand were last to market their 4G proposition, it's no surprise their coverage is for now a little off the mark.

Though the EE network delivers the fastest overall speed and the fastest average speed, coverage in Birkenhead was the slowest recorded 4G speed by any network. Even within the same network, we're seeing great variability in 4G speeds across different parts of the country. The huge differences in EE speeds may be attributed to the rollout of EE Extra, second generation 4G coverage which allow double-speed connections for those willing to pay a premium.

4G speed-seekers in Brighton & Hove have greater flexibility when it comes to choosing a mobile data plan; the only built-up-area to rank in the top 3 for download speeds across all four networks. With such a strong mobile internet, you could sign up to the slowest 4G provider in Brighton & Hove and still have a faster connection than anyone connected in West Yorkshire and five other built up areas.

Want to learn more about 4G? Check out our Ultimate Guide

Speed improvements between 3G to 4G

Across the sampled BAUs we found O2 customers would experience the biggest differences between a 3G and 4G connection. When observing local trends, we identified the locations which have the greatest differences between average 3G and 4G download speeds on the same network.

  • For EE, Brighton & Hove delivers up to 6.6X faster speeds on 4G vs 3G.
  • O2 users in Coventry may also experience up to 6.6X differences in speed.
  • Vodafone customers in Sheffield, up to 5.3X differences in speed.
  • 3 customers in Southend on Sea, up to 3.5X improvements in speed.

3G coverage shouldn't be entirely dismissed. When no 4G coverage is available in the area, mobile devices use a 3G network as a back-up to ensure a connection isn't lost. Given 3 customers already have the fastest average 3G speeds, the network will deliver a faster internet in areas where 4G remains patchy.

3's 3G speeds across the North West (Birkenhead, Stoke on Trent), outpace 4G network coverage in Kingston upon Hull and Birkenhead (EE). For a consumer, location plays a significant factor when choosing the fastest network.

Comparison of average download speed (Mbps) by network across 3G and 4G.

Corellation between speed & connectivity

We found a low positive correlation relationship where cities with more time on LTE, had faster average 4G speeds.

Both speed and coverage are important for an optimal 4G browsing experience; one is no good without the other. Liverpool is one of the best cities in the UK for 4G, with EE offering the best balance of fast internet (21.34 Mbps) and an uptime of 67%

One of the worst 4G experiences is within South Hampshire on 3, reporting coverage below 20% and a speed of 5.53mbps; almost 4 times slower than Liverpool.

The future of 4G

It's still very early days with 4G, and the differences in speed and coverage between 4G cities are astounding. Built up areas, just miles apart can have significant changes in coverage speed and signal strength. Take a "Ferry Cross the Mersey" and the realities of Liverpool & Birkenhead couldn't be more different.

By 2017, we're confident the networks will achieve 4G coverage within reach of 98% of the population. The key issue is how consistent will the 4G experience be across the country? Will various cities edge ahead with 30Mbps speeds on 4.5G as other remote built up areas struggle to maintain a stable 4G connection? Whether it's for business, personal use or the internet of things, our reliance on mobile data will only increase with time. The networks must be fair and ensure everyone gets an equal chance to enjoy the opportunities a 4G infrastructure brings to our country.

Want to find out how the UK compares globally for 4G performance? Our friends at OpenSignal reveal in their latest State of LTE Report - March 2015.

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