A dummies guide to UK Mobile Phone networks.

Background: I live in rural Scotland, work in London (this year, previous years have included Copenhaven, Paris, Eindhoven, the Hague, etc). Mobile phones are important to me, and I've been a hard consumer of them since 1995. I've tried most UK networks, and found them all to be universally crap. People ask my opinion of them, and after the first 10 spittle-coated minutes, run away. 

So this is my long and possibly offensive opinion on each UK mobile phone operator I've tried in the last 17 years, and why I personally believe they should all be pushed into the sea. Or nuked from space. 

Disclaimer: For the litigious lawyers out there working for each of these organisations - this is my opinion based on all the events which happened to me. So its factual as well. At every opportunity, these organisations were given a chance to fix these issues, which they spectacularly failed to. 

Coverage: As I write this, I've found that Orange and T-Mobile are merging their phone networks. And vodafone and O2 are merging theirs. In Scotland, we get O2. Feck. So if its coverage you're after, wait 6-12 months and we'll end up with a completely consolidated mast network here in the UK. So then you can really shop around between carriers, confident that the coverage you receive will be as bad as the coverage everyone else receives.

Because OFCOM - our government telcoms authority - are about as much use as a chocolate teapot. They havent even started the 4g network auction process yet - where countries such as Sweden - have actually rolled out their infrastructure a year ago.

Carrier Overview

 

  • Vodafone. The biggest. Best coverage, worst customer service, treat both business and personal customers as victims. Ripped me off for over £2,000.
  • O2. Terrible network, terrible support (because they cant fix their network). So bad, there's an entire blog devoted to them here.
  • Orange. No rural coverage. The phones were purchased, taken home, and despite assurances from the folks in the shops - didnt work at the house. Returned within hours, despite huge arguments. If you live on top of a transmitter, then they might work for you. 
  • T-Mobile. Terrible customer services, opaque billing, bad coverage.
  • Three. By far the best 3G network, and even covers rural scotland. All you can eat mobile broadband. Promises a Femtocell to folks in marginal signal areas. Guess what. If you ask for one, they refuse.
  • BT. By far the worst customer service on the planet. Absolutely no clue. 
  • GiffGaff. A thinly veiled subsiduary of O2, which runs on top of O2 network, but for a third of the price of O2 and all you can eat internet. Basically O2 without the customer service (which isnt a bad thing) but with terrible SIM card provisioning.

 

Which one would I choose ? Actually, I'd rather trim my pubic hair with a flamethrower than deal with any of these muppets. But at the moment, I'm moving from three to GiffGaff. So as you can see, I'm clearly insane

Vodafone

The biggest mobile phone operator in the world, the most extensive 2g network in the UK, and the most expensive carrier with the least flexibile customer service in both business and personal accounts. 

They were my first mobile carrier, and as such, I thought their abusive behaviour was normal for the market (which it appears to be). So we have exorbitant roaming charges - so if I use a vofafone network in another country, they would charge me crazy amounts of money. Incoming calls would cost crazy amounts of money. Both have now been fixed after years of being ripped off by the EU courts.  Dont even talk to me about Data Roaming - that hasnt been fixed yet.

So every year, I would pop along to Vodafone with my business acount, be completely misled by some bubblehead in their shops (never ever believe anything told to you by anyone in any mobile phone shop. They are there to make commissions and will invariably sell you the deal that benefits them the most), walk out with some shitty phone - remember the XDA2 ? - and get ripped off.

Vodafone ripped me off for over £2,000 in a single month. Every time you change phone, a 'new contract' would be created, and it was up to the shop-based bubblehead to transfer across all your packages and tweaks. In my case, due to lots of international roaming - my 'international roaming' packge was rather fundamental. So the bubblehead didnt transfer it, and I got a £2,000+ bill the next month.

Of course, going back to the shop, asking them to fix it - proved useless. I had to pay up. So I paid up and moved.

Dont for a second think that this problem is restricted to Vodafone - all these useless feckers do it. Now there are laws in place to prevent 'bill-shock' - so if you suffer from 'bill-shock' like this, tell them, you'll be transferred to the 'bill-shock' team who will offer you discounts off your inflated, rip-off bill. Just be firm with them, and the bill will go away.

Vodafone are so bad that whenever we switch mobile phone carriers, SWMBO channels something from the seventh level of hell, and shouts "NOT VODAFONE".

BT

A special place in hell is reserved for BT mobile phone. I walked into a BT shop, and asked for three blackberry Pearls on a business contract. I told them that I had my own BES server, that I needed enterprise phones, and that I didnt want consumer phones.

How long to fix this ? Most of a year. And it required a phone swap. Never trust anyone in a phone shop. If its a BT phone shop, just walk out the door. It'll save you lots of hassle. 

It took director level emails to get this sorted out. And BT being glacially slow at customer service, moved at the speed of a continent.

I would rather staple my scrotum to a wildcat than ever deal with BT mobile ever again.

Orange

Crap network, misleading sales folks in the shop, and a buttload of hassle one weekend, when I foolishly tried them out. Never again. Even folks in urban Londonshire hate them with a passion, and they're supposed to actually have coverage there.

I think I'd rather undergo a self-inflicted appendectomy with a plastic spoon than ever deal with them again.

T-Mobile. 

Terrible coverage, really bad customer support. So bad that one time I went into a shop, demanded support, so they just picked up the phone and dialed the support number. I have fond memories of banging my head against the inside of glass window at the T-Mobile shop in Princes Street, watching the tourists fleeing the scene.

Parts of my forehead ache when I think of T-Mobile. The therapy isnt working. I flinch every time I walk past a T-mobile shop.

O2.

O2 were by far the most recent of my major fallings out with mobile phone providers. 

O2 are the ex BT Cellnet network - and as such, inherited a state-paid-for, almost complete coverage of the UK, 2g network. Talk about a good start. And then they were bought out by Telefonica - the huge Spanish mobile telco. So no shortage of money or talent. Or so I thought.

I was at one stage a complete O2 fanboy - ADSL, mobile dongle, three phones, the whole nine yards. I foolishly thought that putting all my eggs in one basket meant that the person in charge of the basket would treat me as a valuable customer, instead of say, a mugger eyeing up his next victim.

Coverage. Network. These are things we take for granted. We pay these idiots £35/month/handset (And then crazy call charges) so that the wee iShiny in our pocket works all the time. This is the expectation we have been given by the shiny advertising, and the sales patter.

What O2 delivered was akin to the Boy Scouts attempting to build a space shuttle. I'm not denegrating the Scouts - I'm just pointing out that no matter how organised or motivated folks are, sometimes something is really difficult. And no amount of enthusiasm willl work.

I heard on the grapevine that O2 took a choice one year. Continually improve the network, or build new customer service facilities. I'm really glad they chose the latter, as when the former kept collapsing, we had someone at the other end of the phone to yell at. They couldnt fix it of course - the O2 nework was (and probably still is) completely oversubscribed, IMHO.

Why?

O2 won the iPhone deal here in the UK. iPhone as you recall, went 3g. So O2 had to go 3G. But did they install lots of masts all over the UK, replacing or augmenting their 2g infrastructure with 3g antenna? No. Of course not. They cherrypicked the bit of the UK inside the M25 and hoped and prayed they'd done enough.

They hadnt. They sold iPhones on the basis of fast network connectivity, and folks bought them for that. And - dont forget - paid a hefty premium for that service. Which they didnt get.

Case in point - I worked on the South Bank. We had a base station at the other end of the building. So 5-bar signal coverage. Great. But the base station backhaul pipe was completely overwhemled by people using the service. And it took six months, 50+ people on a petition, Ofcom and my MP to actually get O2 to recognise and fix the issue.

Dont believe me ? Its all over here

And for six months downtime at my place of work - what did O2 offer me ? £80. 

I then moved offices to Docklands. And for the first week, my O2 phone did work. And then it didnt. For weeks. Docklands. Not a rural part of scotland. Not the moon. O2 again failed completely to provide a network, failed completely to fix it, and so finally - sick of my complaints - let me out of my contract a few months early.

Which they have to do, by law.

O2 share, IMHO, the customer service attutude of Vogons.

Three

Three is ran by Hutchinson Telecom, and are the only 'pure' 3g network in the UK. If you have a signal, its 3g. Unlike O2, Vodafone, the rest, who want you to use the far cheaper 2g networks.

Great. And Three -when you get coverage - works great. I use a wee Three Mifi (3g to Wifi personal hotspot) all the time. Very handy.

So when the mifi started working at home, I lept at the chance to move to them. After all, their website claims, if you are in a marginal signal area, they'll give you a Femtocell (a wee 3g base station that plugs into your network) for free. Excellent.

So I moved to three.

And the phones didnt work in the house. So I asked for a Femtocell.

"No".

What? "No. We wont give you a femtocell".

And this is where the fun starts. Three outsource their call center to India - and its a really good, well ran call center. Clear lines, intelligent folks. No complaints on that front.

But. If you want something they dont provide, forget it. Its a 'my way or the highway' sort of call center. Okay.

After four weeks of begging, trying to pay for, and stealing a femtocell, I gave up and started to move the phones off. At which point I started to get lots of calls, offering me fantastic phone deals (android phone, unlimited internet, £8/month). I even started to get regular calls from management in India, chasing the Femtocell.

So the deal is, if I'd bought a phone, I'd get a femtocell. And in a few months, I can buy a femtocell. But in a few months, SWMBO will have killed me by then. No phone at home == my imminent death. So when the management guy chasing the femtocell called back and said 'No femtocell', I cancelled and moved to GiffGaff.

I liked Three. Pity it didnt work. 

GiffGaff

GiffGaff pretend to be a user-led, user managed phone company. This is complete bollocks, of course. They're a part of O2/Telefonica, and I suspect they're using GiffGaff to see how to run a really cheap phone company.

That is to say, no support. The users support other users via a blog/Wiki (Sound familar, IBM folks?) and they get credited (pennies) per help, and therefore, someone putting 3-5 hours in a month might get free phone service.

They offer better deals than O2 - £15 gets you unlimited internet, lots of calls, unlimited texts a month - but its on the O2 craptabulous network.

And as its not an 'official' iPhone carrier - no visual voicemail (meh) and no tethering (which Three gave away for free).

The biggest PITA is actually getting free SIMS from them. I've ordered NINIE now, and in a month, only received one. Thats pretty shitty. Its only a SIM card folks.

So far - the billing, website, network experience has been okay. And since GiffGaff dont 'traffic shape', the mobile internet experience has been better than on O2. 

In summary.

In my opinion:

  1. Treat them all with distain. 
  2. Treat them like a bag of rabid weasels. 
  3. Never trust anything said verbally in a shop - they're out to rip you off even more.

Rumours abound that Apple might become a global mobile telco. I'd love that - because I know Apple - for all their faults - treat me like a customer. 

Now wouldnt that be a distruptive force in this bloated, sick, market?