An early guide to the UK's best 4G LTE: EE vs Vodafone vs O2 vs Three

We've waited nearly a year and now the time has come: EE no longer boasts a monogamous relationship with super-fast mobile Internet, after Vodafone and O2 launched their respective 4G networks. Three has also crashed into the 4G frame in dramatic fashion, announcing that existing customers will be able to upgrade to LTE for free following its switch on in December. EE's tariffs may no longer be the only game in town, but do its rivals offer more compelling propositions? We've taken a closer look at all the 4G players, paying particular attention to coverage, speed, and of course the value offered by tariffs. We've duly reached some early conclusions that, as we understand tethering will be supported more or less across the board - some 30 day SIM-only contracts carry restrictions - should prove of interest to professionals and punters in equal measure. It's early days and some information is still sketchy, but here's what we know so far.

EE

Coverage: EE recently sought to underline the scope of its 4G network, announcing that it had passed the 100 town milestone just before its rivals switched on their services. Novelty Ian Rush videos aside, EE 4G now covers nearly 60 per cent of the UK and the operator hopes to reach 99 per cent coverage by the end of 2014. It currently operates on the 1800MHz spectrum, which doesn't have the best indoor penetration, though it also owns a chunk of the prized 800MHz real estate for future expansions.

Speed: EE claims average 4G speeds of 12-15Mbps, while 20 towns and cities enjoy "double-speed" access with downloads typically clocking in at between 24-30Mbps.

SIM-only tariffs: The cheapest 30 day SIM-only tariff with EE is £23 a month, which includes unlimited calls and texts, but only offers a paltry 500MB of data. For a beefier allowance, you're looking at a fair whack more: £33 for 3GB, £38 for 5GB, or an eye-watering £63 for 20GB.

Contract plans: If you want a free or cut-price smartphone thrown in, you'll have to commit to either a 12 month or 24 month contract with EE. That will set you back at least £26 a month over two years, and the meagre 500MB data allowance is again a bone of contention. For a more reasonable 2GB of data, you're looking at a heftier bill of £41 a month, while the top-end £51 option snags you 20GB. Total cost of ownership (TCO) could quickly add up, given the upfront fees to contend with - the BlackBerry Q5 ain't no thing, but an entry-level deal for the HTC One will set you back £250 on top of your monthly £26 spend and drain you of nearly £900 over two years.

Vodafone

Coverage: Vodafone's 4G network has gone live, but rollout is so far confined to just London. The operator claims it will have reached 12 cities by the end of 2013 - major urban hubs like Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Glasgow, and Edinburgh are at the fore of these plans - and is ultimately targeting 98 per cent UK coverage. It also points out that its ownership of a large chunk of the 800MHz spectrum means it will enjoy strong indoor performance.

Speed: Having launched on 29 August, Vodafone has yet to confirm just how fast its super-fast will be, but the operator's press office told us: "4G is typically six times faster than 3G – it varies depending on coverage and demand but it's more than fast enough to support great entertainment on 4G."

SIM-only tariffs: At the time of writing, only 12 month SIM-only plans were available with Vodafone, with tariffs starting at £26 for unlimited calls and texts plus a reasonable 2GB data allowance, 750MB of UK Wi-Fi, and six months free Sky Sports or Spotify - a very enticing deal, at least for Londoners. It's a more attractive overall package than that offered by rival EE, even if it does entail a commitment to the operator. Vodafone told us that 30 day SIM-only tariffs weren't in the pipeline.

Contract plans: Vodafone's on-contract 4G plans start at £34 a month, which is ambitious but will get you a decent 2GB of data plus unlimited calls and texts. As with its SIM-only tariffs, the operator is throwing in six months of free Sky Sports or Spotify, but contract subscribers get an added boon in free unlimited data for the first three months. Does that mean Vodafone will ultimately look at offering an all-you-can-eat contract? At present, the Red XL 4G is as meaty as it gets, featuring an 8GB allowance and costing from £44 a month. However, it's worth noting that the lower-end outlays won't get you a top-of-the-line smartphone, but instead a device like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini or HTC One Mini. If it's the cutting edge you're after, you'll have to shell out a bit more. On the regular Red plan, that amounts to at least £38 a month for the Galaxy S4 proper, £42 for the HTC One, or £42 plus a £59 upfront fee for a 16GB Apple iPhone 5 - a TCO of £1,068 over two years in the case of the latter device.

O2

Coverage: O2 has rolled out its initial 4G service in three cities: London, Leeds, and Bradford. The operator aims to have established a presence in 13 more cities by the end of the year - targeting a handful of urban hubs similar to Vodafone - and it runs exclusively on the 800MHz spectrum.

Speed: Like Vodafone, O2 hasn't uncloaked any specific speed estimates at this stage, but the operator did tell us that its 4G network would typically be "five times faster" than its third-generation services.

SIM-only tariffs: With regards to SIM-only tariffs, O2 offers a '4G Simplicity' option that starts at £26 a month and entails a one year commitment - you'll get unlimited calls and texts, plus 1GB of data, for your money. Ante up to the £31 or £36 a month option and the proposition becomes more intriguing, as O2's introductory offers will see early subscribers get more data bang for their buck. Sign up by 31 October and you'll get a 5GB allowance with the former and an 8GB spend on the latter, compared to 3GB and 5GB after that date.

Contract plans: O2's range of 4G contracts come with modest airtime fees - think £27 a month for 5GB of data (before 31 October) - but the total cost of ownership quickly accumulates as you'll have to pay off your handset on a monthly basis as well. A Samsung Galaxy S4 on a £27 a month tariff, for example, will skyrocket to a TCO of more than £1,100 if you opt for no upfront fee. Shelling out more upfront won't leave you better off in the long term, either - buy the S4 outright at the start for a whopping £650 and you'll avoid the monthly 'phone plan' tariff but wind up some £1,300 down in all. Even taking into account the introductory data offer, it's not a great value proposition, though some may appreciate the flexibility. The operator told us that it has "no plans" to introduce an unlimited data option.

Three

Overview: Unlike its rivals, Three hasn't yet launched its 4G service. But it has moved to reassure both its user base and prospective punters that their patience will be rewarded, announcing that all customers - including those on rolling 30 day SIM-only contracts - will get a free upgrade to 4G when its network goes live in December. We understand that the initial rollout will cover London, Leeds, and Bradford, and Three owns chunks of both 800MHz and 1800MHz spectrum. Performance is obviously a null point pre-launch, but we do know that Three is offering the most competitively priced 4G deals in the UK.

If you signed up for a rolling, 30 day SIM-only One plan for instance, you'll be looking at just £18 a month for all-you-can-eat data, as well as an ample 2,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. Grab yourself a premium handset like the waterproof Sony Xperia Z online, where it can generally be found for around £400 (via Amazon), and you've a TCO of just £832 over two years, plus the flexibility to change contract on a month's notice. Three confirmed to us that there's no cut-off date to sign up, so you could theoretically hop on the bandwagon the day before the network sends its 4G service live, and still make use of the offer.

Update: Three has also announced that it is scrapping roaming charges for a number of territories where it operates, meaning you should be able to access your 4G in the future as far and wide as Australia and Hong Kong for free, as well as in European countries like Ireland, Italy, and Sweden. We also now understand that Three's 30 day SIM-only tariffs do not support tethering and this is likely to remain the case after 4G activation. If you want tethering, you'll have to go with the 12 month SIM-only package, giving you less short-to-medium term flexibility, but coming at a lower monthly cost of £15.

Final thoughts

It's quite the paradox that wider rollout of super-fast mobile Internet has actually left the UK's 4G waters muddier than ever. Once, it was a simple question of: "Do I cough up for EE or wait?" Now that the majority of operators have entered the fray, it's difficult to choose, and as ever a lot will hinge on personal priorities. EE currently has the best coverage, but offers poor data allowances except at high price points, though it does at least offer a 30 day SIM-only option for those after a quick fix. O2 is probably the worst proposition on contract, as its two-tiered tariff system quickly adds up to a massive TCO, though its SIM-only plans are a bit more compelling.

Vodafone is a kind of happy medium - if you want a high spec handset, its entry-level contracts certainly aren't the cheapest, but a baseline 2GB data allowance is a plus and it's offering some nice sweeteners. The lack of 30 day SIM-only tariffs is frustrating, though, which ultimately means we find it difficult to advise against jumping aboard the good ship Three, especially if you live an urban hub where its performance is likely to be strongest. In a nutshell: for nigh on a year we've played the game of wait and see, now it looks like a case of wait for Three.

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