Three 5G was later than other networks to roll out in the UK, but it is now neck-and-neck with other key networks in terms of the number of locations covered, even if Three's footprint in each location is currently fairly modest. Three also has a very limited home 5G broadband service in operation.
Three has the UK’s fastest 5G network because it currently has more spectrum than the other UK operators. We've talked more about Three's spectrum allocation as well as its cloud-based core network in the network section below.
The bottom line, however, is that the network believes it can "provide peak mobile speeds of up to 2x faster than other telco operators due to its substantial 5G spectrum holding." However, the spectrum allocations have been somewhat balanced out as a result of the latest UK 5G spectrum auction in early 2021. Three still added to its holding, by spending an additional £280 million on low band allocation.
The signs are that Three's speed claims for its network are true to their promise, with speeds in the 600-700Mbps range in the fastest areas - indeed, we've previously seen over 700Mbps from one of Three's top-end sites. You'll be getting an average of around 400Mbps in these areas. However, you won't get this type of speeds everywhere.
As we mentioned, Three was late to launch its 5G network in early 2020. This wouldn't necessarily have been noteworthy, expect that the company had taken out multiple-page newspaper ads to boast about its service during summer 2019.
In November 2019, Three admitted the obvious - its 5G launch wasn't going to happen on time. "There are a number of parts we need to put in place to deliver our 5G experience: 5G equipment on masts, the right backhaul transmission, as well as the need to acquire the right planning permissions from landlords," said Three in a statement.
"Added to this we also need to move all of our customer traffic onto the world’s first 5G cloud core network." Three's new cloud-based core network is powered by Nokia.
Three 5G cities
Three has now rolled out to a total of 154 locations. However, coverage remains very limited in each of these areas - see exactly where is covered on the Three coverage checker.
In some large towns and small cities only one small area is covered (presumably from a single mast) and this has caused BT/EE to say that rivals will lose customer support because of their claims.
In a blog post, BT's consumer CEO says: "We know, through independent analysts, that networks which rush to announce places without proper coverage can offer a much narrower customer experience.
"For example, test results suggest that one rival’s network [Three] which currently purports to have the highest number of 5G locations in the UK, actually has coverage levels lower than EE’s in many of those."
"We could loosen our criteria like some competitors; to be honest, it’s tempting, by so doing we would reveal 5G is actually in around 200 unique locations across the UK. However, we believe our claims should be as credible as our 5G is usable."
Allera makes further claims about network congestion which we can take with a pinch of salt, but it's certainly true that Three's footprint is smaller than EE's in many areas and the coverage checker shows that clearly.
The full list of current Three UK 5G locations are:
Aberdeen, Abingdon-on-Thames, Adlington, Aldershot, Aldridge, Balloch, Barnsley, Barrow-in-Furness, Basildon, Bath, Bedford, Belfast City, Billericay, Billingham, Birkenhead, Birmingham, Blackburn, Blackpool, Borehamwood, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brighton, Brimington, Bristol, Bromsgrove, Brookmans Park, Broughton Astley, Burton upon Trent, Cannock, Cardiff / Caerdydd, Chatham, Chelmsford, Cheltenham, Chesham, Christleton, Clayton-le-Woods, Clifton, Colchester, Copmanthorpe, Corringham, Coventry, Crawley, Crook, Cullingworth, Danderhall, Denholme, Derby, Dewsbury, Doncaster, Dundee, East Kilbride, Edinburgh, Ellesmere Port, Exmouth, Glasgow, Gorebridge, Grays, Greenock, Grimsby, Guildford, Hamilton, Hartley, Heanor, Heathcote, Hedge End, Hemel Hempstead, Hertford, Heswall, Horley, Horwich, Huddersfield, Huntington, Inchinnan, Ingleby Barwick, Ipswich, Irlam, Iver Heath, Kings Hill, Kings Langley, Kingston upon Hull, Kirkheaton, Leeds, Leicester, Leyland, Lincoln, Liverpool, London, Lower Stondon, Luton, Maidenhead, Maidstone, Manchester, Mansfield, Marlow Bottom, Metropolitan Castlereagh, Metropolitan Newtownabbey, Milton Keynes, Motherwell, Neston, Newcastle upon Tyne, Newhall, Newport / Casnewydd, Newquay, Newton Aycliffe, Newton-le-Willows, Normanton, Northampton, Nottingham, Nuneaton, Ottershaw, Oxford, Peterborough, Plymouth, Porthcawl, Portsmouth, Preston, Reading, Redcar, Royston, Sheffield, Shelly Green, Slough, South Heighton, South Normanton, Southampton, Southend-on-Sea, Southport, St Albans, St Blazey, St Columb Road, Stevenage, Stockton-on-Tees, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Sunninghill, Sutton in Ashfield, Swadlincote, Swindon, Tamworth, Telford, Thornaby-on-Tees, Wakefield, Walton, Warrington, Washington, Westhoughton, Weybridge, Wickford, Wigan, Winterbourne, Worcester, Worksop, Writtle and York.
Three 5G phones
Although Three is offering 5G at no extra cost to existing consumers, you'll need a 5G ready SIM. So if you decide to buy a SIM-free 5G phone but want to use an existing Three contract, you'll still need to change your SIM.
Three is using a '5G ready' badge on appropriate phones on its website.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G
This year's S Series phone is one of the best we've ever seen, though Samsung's everyday flagship is no longer a rarity - the rest of the smartphone market has caught up. However, Samsung is still using pretty top-notch tech here, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 platform in the US and Samsung's latest Exynos hardware being used elsewhere. The 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 is cheaper than the S20 was at launch. The camera system is much-improved from earlier versions, while the battery life is pretty great, too.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The 6.8-inch S21 Ultra is huge and rather more expensive than its brother. It is definitely the best S21 if you can afford it, largely because of its five-camera setup which includes a 10x optical zoom, the best zoom of any phone camera. Like the standard S21 it runs on Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 in the US and Samsung's own Exynos hardware elsewhere. It even has support for the S Pen, usually found on the Galaxy Note.
Apple iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini
The iPhone 12 mini is new to the range this time around, bringing a compact experience to a flagship phone. It'll appeal to many, but the standard iPhone 12 is the pick of the bunch this time around. The iPhone 12 Pro is the same 6.1-inch size as the standard iPhone 12 and, since the iPhone 12 is almost as capable, it's far better value. Both are available in Black, White, Red, Green and Blue.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max
The Pro Max is a superb 5G handset and in many ways is the power iPhone to have - its camera has even more capabilities including stabilisation than the iPhone 12 Pro. Performance in low light is especially good, which hasn't traditionally been an iPhone strength. The Pro Max is certainly desirable though it is rather large at 6.7-inches. Since the 6.1-inch Pro is the same size as the standard iPhone 12, the latter is much better value.
Although the OnePlus 8 is a great phone, the Nord was the pick of OnePlus' 2020 phones. Not to be confused with the cheaper Nord N10 which is nowhere near as good, the standard OnePlus Nord is a 6.44-inch phone running on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765G platform and OnePlus' OxygenOS software based on Android 10/11. The camera is pretty good, too - the setup is a quad-camera with a 48-megapixel main snapper.
Samsung A90 5G
The third 5G handset from Samsung to come to Three after the below Galaxy S10 5G and the Note 10+ 5G. With a 6.7-inch display, it's the same size as the S10 5G and packs most of its punch with an octocore processor, 48 megapixel main camera, 4,500mAh battery, fast 25W charging and 128GB of storage. Samsung is definitely being aggressive on price with this handset and it's a much more appealing option than some of the other 5G handsets available. It really isn't that far off the capability of the S10 5G at all.
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
Samsung’s first-ever 5G handset is a terrific-looking device that's actually very different internally than the standard S10 and has a quad camera on the rear. It's also bigger than the standard S10 and even the S10+, partly to accommodate the extra 5G goodness and the required cooling - it clocks in at 6.7-inches and has a clever front dual-camera array that's cut into the corner of the display. That screen size is only just shy of the 5G version of the Mate 10 you can see below. Power comes from Samsung's own Exynos 9820 in Europe (US variants use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855).
Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G
Available from Three in its largest 256GB capacity, the Note 10+5G comes in aura glow, which is basically grey or aura black which is, er, black. As with every other Note device the phone comes with the S Pen stylus - if you don't want this, then plump for the S10+ 5G or A90 5G instead. It's barely any smaller than this handset's huge 6.8-inch size. The Note 10+ is also powered by Samsung’s latest Exynos 9825 processor and 5G modem. There's a high-capacity 4,300mAh battery, too.
Samsung Galaxy S20 5G
The standard Galaxy S20 is still a premium handset, of course, but it's available from a great price on Three's unlimited data tariff, which seems like a great deal to us.
The S20 is available from Three in cloud pink, cloud blue and cosmic grey in a 128GB version only. Even though this is the lowest spec of the trio of new S20 handsets, there's plenty of power here thanks to Samsung's latest-generation octocore Exynos platform.
It's also not small, with a super bright 6.2-inch AMOLED display. While the other S20's pack a quad camera, this still has a triple, with a 64 megapixel sensor at the heart. What's more, it's capable of 30x zoom.
Samsung Galaxy S20+
Available in two storage sizes - 128 and 512GB - the S20+ is like the S20 but adds an extra half an inch in screen size so it clocks in at 6.7-inches instead.
The camera system is more comprehensive than the standard S20, too, with a quad-camera setup featuring a 64 megapixel telephoto lens and 12MP ultra-wide. Like the other S20s it can record video up to 8K - super high resolution. Like the others in the range, it has super-fast charging, too.
Once again it's available in three colours - cloud blue, cosmic black and cosmic grey. It's available for just a few pounds more a month than the standard S20 so could be worth considering for the extra size and camera features.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Available in 128 and 512GB versions with cosmic black or cosmic grey colour options, the S20 Ultra isn't going to be found in a bright colour anywhere. Serious colours for a serious phone. Like the S20+ versus the standard S20, the S20 Ultra is a step up from the S20+ but it's not vast.
It's 0.2-inches bigger than the S20+ at 6.9-inches with a 3,200 x 1,440 screen resolution. You get a quad-camera just like the S20+ but the S20 Ultra is capable of 100x (rather than 30x) while there's a - wait for it - super-huge 108 megapixel camera sensor to go alongside a 48 megapixel telephoto lens.
The 100x zoom is more of a gimmick rather than something that's truly practical, but you can zoom into objects really effectively.
Three UK 5G coverage
Three's 5G network rollout includes a new, cloud-based core network developed with Nokia. Three believes that there will be several benefits to it competitively and to customers as well. The new core network has four times the capacity and is more secure.
Three also believes the new network will enable it to roll out products and services faster or to a specific set of subscribers (perhaps even in a single locale) as well as being more cost-efficient to serve the set of customers who consume the most data - over 10GB a month.
With the UK Government banning 5G network equipment from Huawei it's going to cause a bit of upheaval for some mobile networks and indeed, Three will need to diversify the suppliers of its radio access gear as it seems it had chosen Huawei as the exclusive supplier.
As we mentioned earlier, Three believes it will be able to have the UKs fastest 5G network because of its allocation of 5G spectrum – networks have to bid for spectrum in a spectrum auction. Part of the reason three says it will be able to be so fast is that it has the biggest chunk of contiguous spectrum – in other words, it’s mostly together in one 100Mhz block.
Other networks – specifically O2 – think Three is at a competitive advantage because of this as it almost certainly means the network will be able to achieve higher peak speeds.
Three has traditionally held less spectrum than its rivals and Ofcom is working to balance up the market. Plus there is another spectrum auction incoming between 3.6 and 3.8GHz and Ofcom has drawn up several proposals to defragment the networks’ spectrum holdings then.
Indeed, to promote competition, Ofcom will enforce a 37 percent cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction. Ofcom had also threatened to tie the network operators into an agreement to improve rural coverage on 4G.
In response, the four UK mobile operators (BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) are implementing a ‘shared rural network’ plan with the aim of delivering quality 4G coverage to at least 92 percent of the UK over the coming six years.
Therefore this requirement won't be part of the auction itself, but it will be written into the contract when the spectrum is awarded. Presumably by coordinating efforts in rural areas, there is also a cost saving for the networks, too.
Three 5G deals
Three's tariffs are all 5G ready. That's on all contract, SIM only and Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) plans.
That means you won't need to upgrade if you're on an existing tariff as Thee is making 5G available at no extra cost. The catch, of course, is that you will need a new 5G phone to take advantage of 5G speeds.
New and existing customers won't have 5G speed caps, either.
Given that Three's traditional strength has been data-driven tariffs, it will focus on this again. Key rivals have already announced unlimited data 5G deals in order to make sure that Three's unlimited promise
It already offers an unlimited tariff (£20 a month SIM-only, currently only £10 a month for six months).
Three 5G broadband
Three’s first foray into 5G has been to introduce a home broadband service using Huawei’s 5G CPE Pro router, which is also being used by Vodafone for its home 5G offering.
At present Three’s service is only limited to some London areas. We’re expecting more UK expansion in 2021 as it opens up 5G services elsewhere but Three has been clear that it will prioritise its 5G mobile service first.
The use of Huawei equipment in your home really isn't a problem. If you've had 4G broadband before, or used a separate portable hotspot that wasn't on your phone, chances are that device was made by Huawei, too.
The 5G CPE Pro router works just like the fixed-line router that's many of us have in our homes now, save for the fact it has a microSIM card inside. You even get wired network ports so you can connect it to a Powerline network or to a games console or other device that doesn't have Wi-Fi - not that there are too many of these devices available on the market these days.
The home broadband offering is plug-and-play with next-day delivery - we're keen to test it out soon and will let you know our thoughts.
Three 5G business
Currently Three 5G offers numerous benefits to business customers including free subscriptions to WeWork, Moo business card discounts and site creation with Wix.com.
Three offers stacks of phones on its business tariffs, but currently it isn't pushing 5G phones on business plans per se.