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4G LTE on a budget: who offers the best deal?

The UK now plays host to three networks offering lightning fast data speeds using LTE, breaking EE’s monopoly on the market so far. LTE brings a price premium, though, with most providers adding roughly £5 on top of their existing tariffs. So what’s the absolutely cheapest way to get up and running with 4G LTE today? We decided to try and find out.

12 month contracts

As it turns out, EE is the cheapest provider in this category despite criticisms of high prices in the past. The UK’s first LTE network offers both the HTC One Mini and Sony Xperia SP for £41 a month, with an upfront cost of £100 for both phones. That brings the cost of ownership over the 12 month period to £592.

Problems start to surface once you realize that you only get 500MB of data with that tariff. If you need at least 1GB, then you’ll end up paying £51 a month while still having to cough up £50 upfront for either phone. That price bump brings the total cost to £662 after the year is up.

Vodafone offers 12 month LTE contracts as well, and arguably offers better value. The HTC One Mini, for instance, is available on a £52 a month contract with a £79 payment required up front for the phone. The overall cost of £703 may be higher, but you’re also getting 2GB of data, as well as free Spotify or Sky Sports access. It’s important to remember that Vodafone is currently offering 4GB of bonus data until the end of October, giving you 6GB in total to play with.

O2, meanwhile, doesn’t offer 12 month LTE contracts at all.

24 month contracts

Once again, EE provides the lowest barrier to entry for LTE, but Vodafone’s tariffs are the best value. And whatever network you choose, prices start to creep ever higher once you’re locked in for two years. If you’re adverse to paying between £40 and £50 a month, though, then a longer agreement will help spread the cost.

The cheapest phones that EE offers over two-years include the Sony Xperia SP and Nokia Lumia 820. Both handsets are available for free on £26 a month plans, but you’ll only get 500MB of data to go with them. The total cost of ownership for both phones is £624. Increasing the data allowance to 1GB will give you a wider variety of phones to choose from, including the HTC One Mini and Nokia Lumia 625. The overall cost after two years will jump to £744, however.

Vodafone’s 24 month plans are immediately more expensive because they start off with 2GB of data. You can’t go any lower than that, so they’re ideal for anyone who knows that they’ll be burning through a lot of bandwidth.

The minimum tariff is £34 a month, letting you choose from free phones including the HTC One Mini, as well as the LTE edition of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Over two years, you’ll pay £816 in total. Again, Vodafone’s value added extras make it a more interesting proposition over EE. If data is what you need, then Big Red is the way to go.

O2 is the most expensive of the three networks. Using the HTC One Mini as an example shows that you’ll be paying £37 a month to get 1GB of data and a free phone, eventually spending £888 over the lifetime of the contract.

SIM Only

This will could prove to be the cheapest option depending on how you source your phone. If you’re paying full retail from suppliers like Expansys, Clove, and Amazon, then the cost won’t be significantly cheaper – you may even pay the same (or more!) in extreme cases. Hunting around the internet for refurbished or second-hand devices, however, can really help drive costs down.

EE has the absolutely cheapest tariff at £21 a month for 500MB of data, costing £252 over 12 months. The carrier offers a 30 day option too – perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to be tied down – but that will bump the monthly cost by an additional £2.

But as we all know, 500MB can be burned through in a matter of seconds on LTE. Vodafone, then, offers by far the best option for anyone willing to increase their spend to £26 a month. That will net you 2GB of data, plus 4GB of bonus data over the lifetime of the contract if you sign up before October, not to mention the choice between free Spotify or Sky Sports. EE and O2, meanwhile, will only give you 1GB of data for the same monthly price. The total overall cost for all three networks is £312.

Looking to the future

Three will launch its own LTE network in December, and it will become the cheapest way to get 4G in the UK. Why? Because Three has pledged multiple times not to increase prices for LTE access. Not only that, but it will still offer unlimited data, instantly making it the best option for data heavy users.

Think of it this way: Three has a SIM only deal called Ultimate Internet 200, giving you unlimited data for £12.90 a month. The best part is that it’s not even a 12 month contract – it will roll month to month. And even if you do stick around for 12 months, the total spend would only run up to £155. That’s half the cost of Vodafone’s £26 a month SIM only plan.

Being patient until December seems like a wise move, then. The savings in the long run aren’t insignificant, but there is a catch: you’ll be trading cost for network coverage. Three will be the last to launch its 4G network and will have to play catch up given the massive head start others have had. To put it all into perspective, EE’s LTE network is currently available in 105 towns and cities. Three, meanwhile, will only be available in London, Manchester, and Birmingham at launch.

Verdict

If you’re really pinching pennies and want LTE right now, then EE makes the most sense. But if you actually want to take advantage of the increased speeds that LTE provides, Vodafone is by far and away the obvious choice. Even the most basic tariffs will net you 6GB of data if you jump on board before the end of October, and the promise of free Spotify access is almost too good to pass up. But anyone willing to wait will reap the benefits when Three launches its own network in a few months.

Regardless of who you sign up with, remember this: increased competition will ultimately lead to lower prices, and that’s only good news for consumers.

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