For the last ten months, EE has been the only national network operator in the UK offering subscribers 4G connectivity. The choice has been simple: pay for one of EE’s considerably more expensive 4G tariffs, or stick with a 3G-only data plan offered by one of its domestic competitors.

O2 and Vodafone entered the market with their own 4G networks on August 29 though, and will be followed by Three in December. It’s the first time that consumers have had a real choice over how they pay for these considerably faster mobile Internet speeds.

All of them are offering different deals though, with varying price points, perks and additional services to try to sweeten the deal. It’s pretty complicated, which is why we’ve analyzed a few common scenarios to see which comes out on top.

SIM only, 12 month plan

Vodafone offers a trio of ‘Red 4G-ready’ plans for consumers who already own a 4G-compatible device. All of these offer unlimited texts and calls, starting at £26 per month (on a 12-month contract) with 2GB of data and 750MB of access from one of BT’s Wi-Fi hotspots. It also comes with six months of Spotify Premium or Sky Sports TV mobile access.

The price then rises to £31 per month for 4GB of data or £36 for 8GB, as well as 12 months of these additional streaming services.

EE also offers its subscribers unlimited calls and texts, although its pricing is spread a little differently across its numerous 12 month SIM only contracts. It’s also worth noting that these plans include ‘EE Film’ two for one cinema tickets on a Wednesday, as well as access to music streaming service Deezer on a mobile device (only on plans with 2GB or more of data).

  • 500MB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£21 per month)
  • 1GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£26 per month)
  • 3GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£31 per month)
  • 5GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£36 per month)
  • 8GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£41 per month)
  • 20GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£61 per month)

Vodafone is therefore cheaper or better value for money at all of its price points. Power users looking for more than 8GB of data each month will be forced to choose EE, however.

For comparison, O2’s 4G SIM only plans start at £26 per month for 1GB of data, as well as unlimited calls and texts on a 12 month contract. This climbs to £31 for 5GB of data, or £36 for 8GB (3GB and 5GB respectively after October 31). 4G contracts with O2 also include a 12-month subscription to O2 Tracks – a cross-platform music streaming app for the Official UK Top 40 – as well as Priority Sports videos and exclusive, online multiplayer gaming (which also doesn’t eat in to the user’s monthly data allowance).

Update: Three confirmed this week that it will be launching its 4G service in December, starting with London, Birmingham and Manchester. It plans to cover 50 cities by the end of 2014 and 98 percent of the population before 2016. 4G upgrades will come at no extra cost though, so we can take a look at their existing 12-month SIM only plans right now:

  • 500MB of data, 200 minutes and 5,000 texts (£6.90 per month)
  • 1GB of data, 600 minutes and 5,000 texts (£9.90 per month)
  • Unlimited data, 2,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. Also comes with 5,000 extra minutes and texts to other Three customers. (£15 per month)

Three is rather unique, as it’s the only major UK network to offer a 4G contract with a limited number of texts and minutes. That could be a significant drawback for some subscribers, although based on our experiences, 5,000 texts is just fine for most people.

➤ TNW’s choice (from December onwards):
Three | Unlimited data, with 2,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. Also comes with 5,000 extra minutes and texts to other Three customers. (£15 per month)

➤ TNW’s choices (from now until December):
For minimal usage: Vodafone | 2GB of data, with unlimited texts and minutes. 6 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium also included. (£36 per month)

For maximum usage: EE | 20GB of data, with unlimited texts and minutes. EE Film and Deezer access also included. (£61 per month)

Samsung Galaxy S4 (16GB), 24 months

167296363 O2, Vodafone, Three, EE: Which mobile carrier offers the cheapest 4G plans in the UK?

The Galaxy S4 is one of the most popular high-end Android handsets at present and with the Moto X confined to the US for now, Samsung will probably maintain that crown unless a revolutionary Nexus device is unveiled sometime in the fall. First up is Vodafone, with its bonus Sky Sports TV and Spotify Premium subscriptions:

  • 2GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 6 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£38 per month, no upfront cost. Total: £912)
  • 4GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 12 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£43 per month, no upfront cost. Total: £1,032)
  • 8GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 12 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£48 per month, no upfront cost. Total: £1,152)

Next up is EE, with EE Film and mobile access to music streaming service Deezer thrown in for free:

  • 2GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£41 per month, £19.99 upfront cost. Total cost: £1,003.99)
  • 10GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£46 per month, £9.99 upfront cost. Total cost: £1,113.99)
  • 20GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£51 per month, £19.99 upfront cost. Total cost: £1,243.99)

O2 stocks the Galaxy S4 but will offer it as part of its new O2 Refresh contracts. The network is effectively decoupling the price of the handset and call plan, so that users are able to clearly see what they’re paying for each month. For our tests, we’ve chosen the cheapest handset plan for the Galaxy S4 over two years: £20 per month, with no upfront cost.

  • 1GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£22 per month. Handset costs £20 per month. Total cost: £1,008)
  • 5GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£27 per month. Handset costs £20 per month. Total cost: £1,128)
  • 8GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£32 per month. Handset costs £20 per month. Total cost: £1,248)

Vodafone is considerably cheaper for low data caps, besting both O2 and EE with its 2GB data plan. For anything else though, EE is undoubtedly the best option – it’s the only network offering subscribers 10GB or higher each month and consistently better value for money.

Update: Three has said it won’t charge an upgrade fee when it launches its 4G network this December. The prices below are therefore based on what they currently offer for the Samsung Galaxy S4 on a two-year contract.

  • Unlimited data, 500 minutes and 5,000 texts (£33 per month, no upfront cost. Total cost: £792)
  • Unlimited data, 1,000 minutes and 5,000 texts (£35 per month, no upfront cost. Total cost: £840)
  • Unlimited data, 2,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. Also comes with 5,000 additional minutes to other Three subscribers. (£37 per month, no upfront cost. Total cost: £888)

➤ TNW’s choice (from December onwards):
Three | Unlimited data, with 2,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. Also comes with 5,000 additional minutes to other Three customers. (£37 per month)

➤ TNW’s choice (from now until December)
For minimal use: Vodafone | 2GB of data, with 6 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£42 per month)

For maximum usage: EE | 10GB of data, with EE Film and Deezer access. (£46 per month)

iPhone 5 (16GB), 24 months

1518714591 O2, Vodafone, Three, EE: Which mobile carrier offers the cheapest 4G plans in the UK?

The iPhone 5 is one of the most sought-after handsets in the UK, so this will be a common request for a large number of consumers when they consider taking out a new 24-month 4G contract. EE is the first to be put under the microscope:

  • 2GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£41 per month, £29.99 upfront cost. Total amount: £1,013.99)
  • 10GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£46 per month, £9.99 upfront cost. Total amount: £1,104)
  • 20GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£51 per month, £9.99 upfront cost. Total amount: £1,233.99)

Vodafone, O2 and Three, meanwhile, are unable to support the iPhone 5 on their 4G networks. This is due to the specific spectrum bands that Apple’s flagship device supports – so if you’re set on owning this particular smartphone, your choice has already been made.

It’s worth noting though that the next iPhone – expected to be announced on September 10 – should run on all 4G networks in the UK, however. That’s notable in particular for Three, which won’t be launching its 4G network until December anyway.

➤ TNW’s choice for users on a budget:
EE | 2GB of data, with EE Film and Deezer access. (£41 per month)

➤ TNW’s choice for power users:
EE | 10GB of data, with EE Film and Deezer access. (£46 per month)

Nokia Lumia 820, 24 months

If you haven’t noticed already, 4G in the UK isn’t cheap. Neither is purchasing an unlocked handset, which is why we’ve chosen the Nokia Lumia 820 as an example mid-tier handset. So let’s take a look at what Vodafone has on the table first:

  • 2GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 6 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£38 per month. No upfront cost. Total: £912)
  • 4GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 12 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£43 per month. No upfront cost. Total: £1,032)
  • 8GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. 500MB of UK WiFi, 12 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£48 per month. Total: £1,152)

Followed by what EE is currently offering its 4G subscribers in the UK (again with EE Film and free access to Deezer on a mobile device)

  • 2GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£41 per month. No upfront cost. Total: £984)
  • 10GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£46 per month. No upfront cost. Total: £1,104)
  • 20GB of data, unlimited calls and texts. (£51 per month. No upfront cost. Total: £1,224)

O2 will again use the O2 Refresh model here, so we’re using the cheapest handset plan available for the Lumia 820 over two years: £15 per month, with no upfront cost.

  • 1GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£22 per month. Handset costs £15 per month. Total cost: £888)
  • 5GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£27 per month. Handset costs £15 per month. Total cost: £1,008)
  • 8GB of data, unlimited calls and texts (£32 per month. Handset costs £15 per month. Total cost: £1,128)

In the lower data brackets, it’s fairly even between the three carriers. O2 is slightly cheaper than EE and Vodafone, but is offering only 1GB rather than 2GB of data each month. EE continues to take the crown in the higher data brackets though, besting both O2 and Vodafone’s 8GB packages with its own 10GB alternative.

Update: Three will launch its 4G network this December, but doesn’t offer the Nokia Lumia 820 at the time of writing. It does, however, offer the Lumia 520, 920 and 925 on two-year contracts.

➤ TNW’s choice for users on a budget:
Vodafone | 2GB of data, with 6 months of either Sky Sports Mobile or Spotify Premium. (£38 per month)

➤ TNW’s choice for power users:
EE | 10GB of data, with EE Film and Deezer access. (£46 per month)

Wrap up

Prices vary depending on the device, but Vodafone appears to be the best option for consumers looking to access 4G speeds on a budget. Its 2GB data plan beats O2 and EE’s nearest offerings almost every time, although power users will no doubt want a less restrictive limit for streaming music, films or downloading apps on the go.

EE is still the only carrier offering its subscribers more than 8GB of data per month. Neither Vodafone, O2 or EE offer unlimited data, so for now users are restricted regardless of which carrier they side with. O2 should be commended for offering greater transparency over its pricing but from what we’ve seen, that’s not resulting in cheaper prices for UK consumers just yet.

The iPhone 5 is effectively locked to EE, which means that consumers have no choice whatsoever if that’s their desired handset. The next iPhone will almost certainly remedy that situation, but for now it’s a case of either EE or 3G.

Update: With Three in the mix, there’s now a lot of choice for 4G customers in the UK. Three won’t be launching its 4G network until December though and like Vodafone and O2, won’t offer widespread coverage until at least 12 months later. Nevertheless, it currently offers the lowest prices for unlimited data plans – provided, of course, Three doesn’t increase them before the year’s end.

Image Credit: Ree Saunders / Flickr / Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images