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Two years ago, I plugged a selection of 3G dongles into my laptop at various locations to see what the coverage and speed offered by the major mobile networks was like. You can see the results here, but with HSPA being introduced at ever higher upload and download speeds, it's time to compare them afresh.

Cellular antenna. Source: Vxla/Flickr

Source: Vxla/Flickr

Last time, I also tested Virgin, which uses T-Mobile’s network, as well as the Big Five. This year, I decided to try Giffgaff, which relies on O2 to haul the coal. Giffgaff seems to be the favoured option for those who think that the major networks data offerings are too expensive and too Byzantine.

I’ve made another couple of changes from 2010. Then I used the supplied USB modem dongles from each carrier. This time I used a single ZTE MF60 portable 3G router to ensure all the networks were tested with exactly the same hardware.

Of course, when Mr Editor Sir asked me to do the speed tests back in 2010 I thought it’d be the for the first and last time. Surely, LTE would hove into view and usher a brave new dawn of super-fast data downloading? Like heck it did.

I asked all the cellcos about their 4G/LTE roll-out plans. Everything Everywhere reckoned it stood like greyhounds in the slips, while the others opined that until the Government works out WTF it’s doing with the spectrum auctions there was little they could tell me.

O2 coverage map 2012 Vodafone coverage map 2012
Three coverage map 2012 Orange coverage map 2012

Current coverage: Clockwise from top left, O2, Vodafone, Orange and Three

As before, tests were carried out using speedtest.net. Yes, I know it’s a wee bit basic and dirty, but it provides a level playing field and allows for rapid tests to iron out any freak spikes and anomalies.

The good news is I got HSPA connectivity wherever I went, and all the networks have taken a step forward since 2010 in terms of outright speed. For some - step forward, O2 - it's only a small step, however.

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Next page: Networks compared

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