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Three will be the last of the UK Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to launch a 5G phone service since EE, O2 and Vodafone all have theirs up and running. O2's is still very new, but they're certainly well ahead of Three.
So far Three has launched a very limited London-based offering for home broadband, but the service is still very limited. More on that below.
Three was supposed to be launching its 5G phone network in late 2019 - we were expecting October or November - but it has had to announce a delay to its rollout until the first quarter of 2020.
When it does launch mobile services, Three is claiming it will have 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 cloud-based core network in the network section below.
The claims of being the fastest are still unsubstantiated, although early signs are that it will be able to achieve average speeds of 232 Mbps generally with peak speeds in excess of 1Gbps according to Three.
What happened with Three's planned 5G launch?
In November 2019, Three admitted what was becoming somewhat obvious - its 5G launch wasn't going to happen by the end of that year and would instead take place in early 2020.
"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."
"Some of these components are more time consuming and complex than others, and, as a result, our 5G roll out is slightly behind our original plan."
Since that original statement in November, Three has moved to counter suggestions it will lag behind and has even gone so far as to say "there is no demand that requires an immediate launch".
That's a long way from its multiple-page newspaper ads in the summer. Three's bluster on this topic - notably with a slogan saying "if it's not Three it's not real 5G" is ringing a little hollow now its network rollout has been delayed.
“Rather than launch with a small number of sites this year, as other operators have done, we will launch with a substantial footprint in 2020,” a Three spokesperson said. “As a lot of the technology that will exploit the benefits of 5G, including 5G-enabled smartphones, are currently limited in availability,"
Even though Three's delay is embarrassing given its earlier claims, we're expecting 2020 to be the year when 5G really takes off, so time is still on Three's side.
Both business and consumers are still switching onto the possibilities that 5G will offer them - and the early handsets are still rolling out - so everything is still to play for.
Three 5G cities
Three’s home 5G broadband is already available in certain parts of London - see below for more details on which areas are covered - but it's difficult to tell where in London it has launched. Many central London postcodes we have tried don't offer 5G home broadband, just 4G.
Three's 5G technology will be coming to 25 cities during the first phase of rollout in early 2020: Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading , Rotherham, Slough, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Sunderland.
These cities were originally planned to have Three 5G by late 2019.
Three 5G phones
Three has said it will launch initially with four 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 go into store and change your SIM.
Three is using a '5G ready' badge on phones on its website, so even though Three is not yet offering 5G services, you'll know which phones are 5G capable and which aren't.
It's hard to recommend anybody plumps for a 5G phone on Three at present - simply because we don't know absolutely when the network will launch its 5G services.
Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G
This entry-level 5G handset still packs a major punch - it has some top-end specs with a 6.4-inch display and Qualcomm's top-end Snapdragon 855 powering things along. You get a pop-up dual front camera plus there's also dual 12 megapixel cameras on the rear. The camera tech is a force to be reckoned with as it has every function going including slow-mo and night mode. Three has the roomy 128GB version and it comes in onyx black.
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).
Huawei Mate 20 X 5G
Although we're expecting a version of the upcoming Huawei Mate 30 to be 5G-capable, this was Huawei's first 5G phone and it's not long been out in the UK due to the company's ongoing trade war with the US. It's a huge 7.2-inch device that's available from Three with 256GB of storage and in a rather fetching emerald greeen. The phone has a long-life 4,200mAh battery and is based around Huawei's self-designed Kirin 980 platform with its Balong 5000 5G modem.
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.
Three UK 5G coverage
Three's 5G network rollout includes a new, cloud-based core network developed with Nokia. Customers are already being moved across - during October 2019 Three said that 9m customers, almost the entire subscriber base, connected to data services on the new network, and 5.8m customers connected to voice services using it, too.
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.
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.
However, Three has traditionally held less spectrum than its rivals and Ofcom believes it is working to balance up the market. That's because 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 is proposing 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's coverage checker doesn't yet have 5G included but we expect it to be added very soon.
Three 5G deals
Three hasn't yet specified any 5G-specific mobile deals will be but its tariffs are 5G ready as it is.
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.
Given that Three's traditional strength has been data-driven tariffs, expect it to focus on this again. It already offers an unlimited tariff (£20 a month SIM-only, currently only £10 a month for six months).
Key rivals O2 and EE have already announced unlimited data 5G deals after Vodafone leapt first to join Three in the unlimited data 5G battle.
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 a handful of London areas - Camden, Camberwell, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington - we’re expecting this to increase fairly rapidly as it opens up 5G services elsewhere but Three hasn't confirmed more areas of coverage as yet.
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.
Previously Three confirmed that it would also offer HTCs 5G Mobile Smart Hub, too, although it hasn't yet launched. EE is also stocking that device.
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.