I’ve always had a soft spot for BT Group (LSE: BT.A), despite the regulatory red tape that binds its freedom – and shareholders have done pretty well over the past five years with a 145% share price rise to 458p, by far the best gain of any of my four for today. BT’s modest dividend yields of around 3% are pretty average, but they’re make a nice layer of icing for the capital gains cake.

With the acquisition of EE, the UK’s largest mobile network, and its £2bn investment in sports and other prime telly, BT can now compete with the rest on all telecoms services. And with forecast P/E multiples of only around 13 to 14, it’s not an expensive foray into the sector.

Expensive mobile

Compare that with Vodafone (LSE: VOD), and you’ll see a company that only does mobile telecoms and whose share price has gone nowhere in the past five years – it’s the weakest performer of the four, with just a gain of 15% to 217p. Granted, Vodafone has higher dividends on the cards, with more than 5% forecast for this year and the next two. But they’re nowhere near covered by earnings, and the shares are on a P/E for the year to March 2016 of more than 44!

Vodafone is developing its next-generation network which will cover a fair amount of Europe, and that will surely boost profits some time in the future. But right now the outlook is uncertain, and the shares seem to be priced for a takeover – they’re too expensive in my book.

Second place?

The five-year share price record for Sky (LSE: SKY) isn’t too hot either, with just a 22% gain to 1,004p. Dividend yields come out slightly ahead of BT’s with 3.4% forecast for the year to June 2016, and they’re well enough covered and are progressive. But on P/E terms, the shares look a little pricey to me – this year’s forecast gives us a multiple of 16, rising to above 17 with an earnings fall predicted for 2017.

Sky’s biggest non-financial strength is its position on the premium TV market, and though BT has made small inroads and cable TV is a serious competitor, Sky looks like it will be the dominant provider, especially for sports, for the foreseeable future.

Security breach, oh dear!

TalkTalk Telecom (LSE: TALK) shares were actually outperforming BT until June last year, but they were already going off the boil before a damaging security breach in October 2015 exposed some customer data to hackers. Thankfully the damage was small, but it has shaken confidence in the company’s ability to protect its customers. The share price retreated to a five-year gain of 77.5% – better than Vodafone and Sky, but still way behind BT.

The price has regained 24% since February’s low, to 239p, and there’s strong double-digit earnings growth forecast for the next couple of years, but it would take until March 2018 to get the P/E down under 14 from today’s 25. TalkTalk also has what I see as a bizarre dividend policy. It’s been making uncovered payments for the past two years with the same expected for March 2016’s mooted 6.6% yield, but even by 2018 we’d still see it only just covered.

There’s room in the telecoms sector for all four to do well, but BT still looks the most prudent long-term buy to me.

It's hard to beat the idea of putting your money into strong dividend-paying companies like these, which have the potential to lift your income year after year. Our newest report, A Top Income Share From The Motley Fool, reveals a company that might just fit that bill.

It's a company with a market cap of around £500m, so it's not a high-risk tiddler, and dividends have been growing very strongly over the past few years.

Want to know more? Click here to get your completely free copy of the report delivered to your inbox today.

Alan Oscroft has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Sky. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.