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Best and worst mobile networks 2021

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Last updated: 15 October 2021

Ofcom's annual customer-service report looks at how the major mobile network providers performed last year on factors such as customer satisfaction and value for money. Read our useful guide to find out who are the best and worst mobile network providers in the UK. 

How are mobile networks ranked?

Every quarter, industry regulator Ofcom collects a survey of overall customer satisfaction, including factors such as satisfaction with customer service, satisfaction with the service itself and value for money. It also provides a breakdown of complaints per 100,000 customers for each major provider.

Remember that the ranking only provides a snapshot into the happiness of customers for each provider. It does not necessarily relate directly to how good their mobile network service is, but can indicate when a provider is having more issues than normal. You must also remember that the complaints per 100,000 customers only shows you the number of customers who were so unhappy they escalated their complaint to the regulator. There may actually be far more unhappy customers per 100,000.

These rankings do not mean you should necessarily switch provider either. You may find that you have had no problems with your mobile network, but your provider is ranked badly by Ofcom.

Mobile network customer satisfaction - At a glance

Network Satisfaction with overall service Satisfaction with reception or signal strength Satisfaction with value for money Customers with a reason to complain Overall satisfaction with complaint handling Average call waiting time Ofcom complaints per 100,000 subscribers
Tesco Mobile 97% 92% 97% 3% 59% 0:35 3
giffgaff 95% 86% 96% 2% 65% N/A N/A
O2 93% 85% 87% 1% 59% 0:43 9
EE Mobile 93% 84% 84% 2% 59% 0:57 7
Virgin Mobile 93% 84% N/A 3% 51% 1:35 27
Vodafone 90% 89% 83% 3% 52% 1:12 26
Three Mobile 89% 75% 87% 6% 60% 2:37 15
Average 93% 85% 87% 3% 58% 1:18 13

Who are the best mobile network providers in 2021?

Let’s take a look at the best mobile networks in the UK, according to Ofcom’s 2021 customer service report:

1. Tesco Mobile

With an impressive overall customer satisfaction score of 97%, the best mobile network provider according to Ofcom in 2021 is MVNO Tesco Mobile. In fact, it scored above 90% for each measurement, the only network to do so. Another 97% of Tesco Mobile customers were satisfied with its value for money, while 92% were satisfied with their signal strength.

Tesco Mobile isn’t one of the Big Four, piggybacking off of O2’s network, but it’s already one of the UK’s most recognised brands thanks to its supermarket branches. As well as high customer satisfaction reports, Tesco Mobile has also fared above average when it comes to rating its customer service.

You won’t get the fastest 4G or 5G speeds with Tesco Mobile, but tariffs with the firm also won’t cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, Tesco Mobile is one of the most affordable mobile network providers out there, reflected in the fact that the vast majority of customers deem it good value for money.

2. giffgaff

Another MVNO punching above its weight, giffgaff scored a highly-respectable 95% in overall customer satisfaction. It scored even better in the value for money category, with 96% of customers happy with giffgaff’s prices. Customers were less satisfied with their reception or signal strength at just 86%, although this is still slightly higher than the UK average of 85%.

Like Tesco Mobile, giffgaff piggybacks off of O2’s network, which means customers can benefit from the same speeds and coverage that you’d get from that provider. But as well as its widespread coverage, giffgaff is mostly known for offering low-cost tariffs. Some of its best tariffs include a 500MB data package for just £6 a month, or an unlimited tariff for £35 per month.

Another reason why giffgaff may appeal to those in a budget is the fact that all of its contracts are available on a rolling, monthly basis. This means you’re free to switch to a different network whenever you wish without paying any hefty exit fees, and you won’t be tied into a lengthy and ultimately expensive contract.

3. O2

The best performing network of the Big Four in 2021, according to Ofcom’s annual report, is O2. However, while an overall satisfaction score of 93%, a value for money score of 87% and a reception and signal strength score of 85% sound quite impressive, these scores actually fall in line with the UK-wide averages.

O2 runs its own network in the UK, which both Tesco Mobile and giffgaff use to deliver their own services. This makes it one of the so-called ‘Big Four’, along with EE, Three, and Vodafone. So, if you want to go for one of these respected and reliable companies, O2 might be your best bet, according to Ofcom.

O2 has widespread 4G coverage in the UK with customers able to connect to it 84% of the time. However, if its speed you’re after then you may be left disappointed, as O2’s 4G speeds are slower than any of the other Big Four, with average download speeds of just 15.8Mbps. You will get a number of perks, however, including access to O2 Priority which gives you discounts and queue jumps to certain events such as concerts.

4. EE

The next best Big Four network in 2021, according to Ofcom, is EE. It also received an overall customer satisfaction score of 93%, but scored slightly below average for satisfaction with signal strength and value for money, at 84% each.

One of the best things about EE is the fast 4G and 5G speeds it offers. According to RootMetrics, EE offers average download speeds of 58.8Mbps, more than double that of its closest rival, Vodafone, which had average speeds of just 25.2Mbps.

EE offers a wide range of monthly contracts and SIM-only deals, with data packages ranging from just 1GB up to 100GB of data a month. You also get access to a wide range of perks with EE, including unlimited data on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, BT Sport, Apple Music, and more.

5. Virgin Mobile

The mobile branch of telecoms giant Virgin Media, Virgin Mobile also received an overall customer satisfaction score of 93% - in line with the UK average. Meanwhile, 84% of Virgin Mobile customers were satisfied with their reception and signal strength, just below the UK average of 85%.

Despite being a well-known, respected company, Virgin Mobile isn’t one of the Big Four mobile networks, but was in fact the first MVNO in the UK having been launched back in 1999. It piggybacks off of EE’s network, meaning Virgin Mobile customers can benefit from the above-average download speeds that EE provides.

Virgin Mobile also offers a wide range of handsets on its tariffs to suit all budgets, something which sets it apart from many other MVNO’s who have a more limited range of models for sale. It’s SIM-only deals are capped at just 50GB, however, but you can get around this by connecting to one of the 2 million or so Virgin Mobile WiFi hotspots dotted around the country.

6. Vodafone

Vodafone received an overall customer satisfaction score of 90% in 2021, which despite being quite high, was in fact the second lowest for all network providers included in the survey. However, it received the second-best score for satisfaction with reception and signal strength, with 89% of customers happy about this. It fared slightly worse for value for money, in fact getting the lowest score of just 83% satisfaction.

With prices ranging from £11 a month up to £37 a month, you’ll probably find better value tariffs with some smaller MVNOs, but Vodafone is one of the Big Four networks and is therefore a reliable bet. The Vodafone network provides the second fastest speeds after O2, according to RootMetric, with UK average download speeds of 25.2Mbps.

Vodafone also provides impressive 5G speeds, should you have a 5G-capable handset of course. RootMetric recorded its highest ever 5G speeds with Vodafone, at 491.1Mbps in Central London. Vodafone offers a wide range of both pay monthly and SIM-only contracts, and it also has widespread coverage, offering 4G access to 99% of the UK.

7. Three

With an overall customer satisfaction score of just 89%, Three was the lowest rated mobile network in 2021 according to that metric. Having said that, there’s only an 8% difference between Three and the highest rated network, Tesco Mobile, so the difference between the best and worst mobile networks is somewhat marginal. Also, what may be the best network for one customer may prove to be the worst for another, depending on their specific needs and preferences.

It did, however, receive a significantly low score for reception and signal strength, with just 75% of customers satisfied – 9% lower than the next lowest network. It fared better for value for money, with 87% of customers satisfied – in line with the UK average.

Three is one of the Big Four mobile networks, although its coverage doesn’t match up to its rivals with just 76% of customers being able to connect to 4G. Its average download speeds aren’t the best either, lagging behind both EE and Vodafone. However, what makes Three is the fact it offers a wide range of tariffs with truly unlimited data – something which is harder to come by with other networks, especially MVNOs.

Who are the worst mobile networks in 2021?

While Three had the lowest overall customer satisfaction score according to Ofcom, it's hard to say exactly who is the worst network overall. As we mentioned previously, the differences between the best rated and lowest rated network providers are fairly minimal. Ofcom's report also doesn't take into account every network out there, just the well-known ones with the highest market share.

Also, what may make a great deal for one customer may not work quite as well for another. Therefore, it's important to compare mobile phone tariffs from a number of networks before choosing the best plan for you.

Make sure your new provider has you covered

The most important thing to consider when looking for a network provider is whether you will have mobile phone signal in the main area that you are using your mobile device. A good standard of customer service is important, but if you have no service to call them then it won’t matter!

Make sure you have checked the coverage of your chosen mobile network before committing to them. Most of the larger providers will have a tool for checking coverage on their website.

Should I switch mobile network provider?

Even if you’re happy with your current mobile network provider, there may still be reasons to switch. If you’ve been with your current provider for a while then you may be paying far more than new customers are being asked to pay. By switching providers you will gain access to deals offered to new customers, so be sure to shop around regularly for cheap mobile deals.

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Danny Lord

Author: Danny Lord

Danny is our Editor-in-Chief, and has been writing news and guides for comparison sites for the last five years.