Of all the current UK networks, O2 has changed the most. The carrier as it exists now was “born” in 2002, but its history dates as far back as 1985.
Prior to being known as O2, the BT-owned network was Cellnet (formed through a 60-40 partnership with BT and Securicor) before BT bought out its partner in 1999 and rebranded the network to BT Cellnet. In 2002, the holding company was rebranded to mmO2 — later O2 plc — and the O2 brand was born in the U.K.
Three years later, BT sold the network to Spanish company Telefonica for 18 billion pounds, resulting in O2 plc. rebranding to Telefonica Europe. In 2014, BT reportedly was in talks to buy back the company, followed up by deal talks with Three just a year later, however that offer failed to find regulatory approval. So O2 is still here, offering one of the country’s most extensive 4G networks and stellar customer service.
In this O2 network review, we’ll analyze the network including its coverage, plans and what lies ahead for the U.K. carrier.
O2’s network currently uses the following frequencies:
Protocol:GSM / GPRS / EDGE
Protocol:GSM / GPRS / EDGE
Protocol:UMTS / HSDPA / HSPA+ / DC-HSPA+
Protocol:UMTS / HSDPA / HSPA+ / DC-HSPA+
O2’s U.K. network has traditionally struggled against its rivals with new innovations, but it has progressively improved over the past few years. O2 was the third network to launch 4G services (behind EE and Vodafone).
In terms of coverage, O2 has 99 percent of the U.K. network blanketed in its 4G network, and 99 percent with 3G. This puts O2 more or less on par with EE, Vodafone, and Three.
In the 4G spectrum auction held in 2012-13, O2 solely acquired 2 x 10MHz of the 800MHz spectrum, to be deployed for 4G. This came with a coverage obligation. Despite spending only 38 million pounds less than EE (who captured both 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum), O2 acquired the spectrum to which Ofcom had attached the obligation to provide 4G LTE mobile broadband services covering 98 percent of the U.K. population by the end of 2017.
The decision to solely acquire the 800MHz spectrum — instead of a combination including the 2.6GHz spectrum like its rivals — meant O2’s network had to eventually offer blanket indoor 4G coverage, though not super-fast speeds. O2 now offers double-speed LTE-Advanced services (LTE-A) using 1,800MHz spectrum too, and more recently won 40MHz of 2.3GHz spectrum for additional 4G advancements during Ofcom’s 5G auction.
Overall, O2’s network has improved in the past few years, eliminating so-called “not-spots” of coverage up and down the country.
O2 5G plans
O2 will launch its 5G network in October, 2019. The company will initially roll out the service in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough, and Leeds, before deploying it in 50 more cities by summer 2020.
O2 is expected to be the only UK carrier to avoid using Huawei telecoms equipment. Huawei, the leading telecoms network infrastructure provider, currently faces accusations of spying for the Chinese government — claims which it denies. O2 has instead partnered with Ericsson and Nokia on its 5G network, but said it remained open to working with Huawei in the future.
O2 has also teamed up with another U.K. carrier, Vodafone, to help accelerate the rollout of its 5G network. O2 won 40MHz of the country’s 3.4GHz spectrum at Ofcom’s 5G spectrum auction for a cool 317,720,000 pounds and will use that as part of its 5G plans.
O2 coverage checker
You can check to see if O2 has the best mobile network coverage for you using the O2 coverage checker.
VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling
In March 2017, O2 flipped the switch on its 4G Calling (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi Calling services for users with compatible handsets. These includes phones from Apple, Samsung, Sony, OnePlus, and Google — you can find the full list here.
VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling are available on all contract and business plans, but not Pay as you go.
O2 leases its network to 18 mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) in the U.K., including some of the most high-profile MVNOs such as GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile, Lycamobile, Talk Talk Mobile, and Sky Mobile.
O2 UK plans and devices
Pay Monthly Handsets
O2’s Pay Monthly handset (PAYM) offering is probably the most unique in the U.K. The network is the only one to currently split your monthly bill into a handset price and an airtime price. Initially dubbed O2 Refresh but now just offered as O2’s standard contract offer, this has both good and bad points for customers.
Traditional PAYM contracts combine the cost of the phone and the airtime into a single monthly cost but the case for O2’s flexible tariff offer is pretty compelling — the biggest problem with a single bill is that if you want to buy your contract out (whether it’s to leave the network or upgrade early), you have to pay the full price of each remaining month, even though you’re not getting the airtime benefits.
The separate monthly airtime and device payments mean all you actually have to do is pay the remaining amount of your device plan to upgrade early or leave the network whenever you want. This also allows you to pay off your handset to reduce your monthly outgoings and provides you the flexibility to control your monthly cost.
Speaking of flexibility, O2 has suggested tariffs for each contract phone, but you can chop and change the monthly airtime, upfront cost, and data allowance to match your budget and needs. Contract length can range from three to 36 months and data options go from 1GB to 60GB.
Overall O2’s flexible contracts are, without doubt, the most unique PAYM packages in the U.K., and they’re only available directly from O2. That said, the plans are on average a few pounds extra per month than other options out there.
O2 phone brands
O2 stocks a wide range of phones from a variety of manufacturers on Pay Monthly. Below is the full list of the major brands:
O2 is also one of the few carriers to offer premium phones on Pay as you go, however, it’s worth noting that these are locked to O2.
Pay Monthly SIM Only
Like all networks, O2 also offers SIM Only (SIMO) packages for customers who prefer to buy their phones and contracts separately, although it can work out cheaper to buy a phone on an O2 PAYM contract and pay the handset off straight away.
Read next: Best UK plans for international calling
O2 offers a range of SIMO packages, with options for 30 days and 12 month plans. These are available with up to 50GB 4G data each month. O2 also offers special 18 month plans from time to time that go up to 60GB. Here’s O2’s current 4G SIMO plans (subject to change):
|Monthly data||Minutes||Texts||12-month price||1-month price|
Pay as You Go Plans
Like many networks, O2 splits its Pay As You Go (PAYG) offering into packs and different types of SIMs for different usage. The network’s Big Bundles offer minutes, texts, and data in exchange for your credit each month.
O2 also offers a classic top-up SIM that charges three pence a minute for calls, two pence for texts, and one pence for each MB of data. The carrier’s international SIM grants customers extra texts and data to use in Europe, as well as international calls from one pence per minute.
Here a breakdown of O2’s PAYG Big Bundle plans:
|Big Bundles Costs||Minutes||Texts||Data||Duration|
Big Bundles Costs:£10
Big Bundles Costs:£15
Big Bundles Costs:£20
Big Bundles Costs:£25
Big Bundles Costs:£30
Compared to its rivals, O2 offers the widest range of perks for its customers. There are many compelling reasons to buy an O2 PAYG, SIMO, or PAYM handset. Here’s a few of the O2 perks:
O2 Priority is the biggest perk for O2 customers and it is arguably the best perk available to customers of any mobile network. Priority is available to any O2 customer (PAYG included) and gives you exclusive pre-sale tickets to some of the hottest gigs & live events across the U.K.
At The O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome), Priority also gives you access to a special VIP bar and experience. Having used Priority to gain early access to tickets including comedy shows and music gigs, I can safely say that Priority is definitely a compelling reason to buy an O2 plan. It also gives you access to exclusive offers from restaurants, shops, and establishments, as well as O2 Academies dotted up and down the country.
O2 customers also get access to O2 Wi-Fi, which allows you to connect to any of the 15,000 O2 Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.K. free of charge. While this is technically an O2 Perk, customers of any mobile network can access O2 Wi-Fi free of charge, so it’s not an exclusive offer to O2 customers. However, 7,000 of the hotspots are open to O2 customers without any registration required.
O2 also has a dedicated team of experts online, over the phone and in store called O2 Gurus that help customers with technical queries. Unlike rival services such as Carphone Warehouse’s Geek Squad, the O2 Guru service is completely free of charge.
My O2 app
The My O2 app lets users view bills, check allowances and upgrade eligibility, buy add-ons, and more.
O2 offers a range of mobile broadband products like USB dongles, Mobile Wi-Fi routers, and data only SIMs. Here are the data-only SIM plans at time of writing:
|Data||12-month cost||30-day cost|
O2’s primary mobile broadband proposition is the Netgear M1 4G hotspot which can connect up to 20 devices and is designed as a home broadband replacement. Data plans range from 2GB to 75GB on O2’s flexible contract tariffs.
Tablets, accessories, and smart home
O2 offers a variety of tablets on contract deals and Pay as you go. This includes a broad range of Samsung Android tablets and iPads, as well as cheaper devices from Huawei and Alcatel.
In addition to traditional accessories like cases, headphones, and screen protectors, O2 also stocks smart tech including wearables, VR headsets, and smart speakers.
Broadband, landline phones, and quad-play
Unlike its chief rivals, O2 does not offer any quad-play services to its customers, nor has it mentioned any current plans to offer quad-play services in the near future.
The network previously offered O2 Broadband to customers, but this was sold to Sky in May 2013 and the network hasn’t offered fixed-line broadband services in the U.K. since. O2’s position in the U.K. market is set to change dramatically, and it’s highly unlikely the network will ever offer broadband services again.
As a network, O2 has undergone major transformations both in name and stature since 1985. The first network to offer GPRS data in the U.K., O2 has seen its share of ups and downs over the years, but compelling offerings like O2 Priority and O2 Refresh have seen O2’s market share rise.
O2’s offerings, like Priority, Refresh, and Wi-Fi are compelling.
O2 definitely has positives and negatives. O2’s offerings, like Priority, Refresh, and Wi-Fi are certainly compelling, but are they enough to get you to switch to what is usually a higher monthly tariff compared to O2’s rivals? If you frequent music gigs, comedy shows, and events then certainly they are.
It’s also worth noting that O2 consistently scores highly in customer satisfaction surveys and reports. This, combined with free customer care services like O2 Gurus, make O2 one of the more welcoming and friendlier networks.
Are you an O2 customer? Let us know your views on O2 in the comments.