Appropriately enough, Three will become the third 5G network to launch in the UK, coming in after EE and Vodafone. It’s looking as if the new network will be off to a slow start, but Three can instead attract people to its services based on future potential rather than immediate capability.
Read more about Three's 5G plans, including what phones it will offer and how much it will charge for 5G service.
Three 5G Cities: Where you can get it first
The initial Three launch will only take place in London, and only for home broadband, at an unknown date in August. That's disappointing compared to Three's rivals, who tend to launch in at least six cities each and offer mobile coverage.
However, Three promises to have 5G mobile and broadband available by the end of the year in Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading, Rotherham, Sheffield, Slough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton. Adding London makes for a total of 25 cities, the largest number of locations by the end of 2019 promised by any carrier’s announcements so far.
How fast will Three 5G be?
Currently Three has made no claims to the exact speed of its 5G network, but it does assert that it will be twice as fast as its rivals. For reference, the 5G download speed EE and Vodafone are promising is 150Mbps average speed, and 1Gbps max.
Three's 'True 5G'
Three is also boldly asserting that it will be the only "true" 5G provider when it launches, according to the IMT-2020 standard, set down by the International Telecommunication Union, an agency that’s part of the United Nations.
To briefly sum up, this standard is what telecoms companies around the world are aiming to have in place for their 5G networks in 2020. Most carriers, including EE and Vodafone, are launching with a 4G/5G hybrid service to make the transition period easier, rather than launching straight into a fully completed network which would take far longer to set up.
Three is able to make the "true 5G" claim because of its secret weapon — its 5G spectrum holdings. When UK communications regulator Ofcom auctioned the rights to use different 5G radio frequencies to the telecoms companies (so nobody would end up clashing by using the same frequencies), Three bought an enormous quantity, more than twice as much as the next closest carrier, and that amount contains within it 100MHz of contiguous spectrum (adjacent frequencies).
With the IMT-2020 Minimum Technical Performance Requirements listing 100MHz as the minimum contiguous quantity for delivering a 5G network, it means Three has this base covered far in advance of its rivals, which is a significant early advantage.
The larger quantity of bandwidth means in theory that you’ll have greater reliability and speed when using 5G on a Three phone than anyone else’s, as there’s more chance of finding and holding onto a signal frequency that you can use. But only once Three service launches will we really be able to tell if this has paid off.
Three’s first 5G phones
Currently Three’s announced only two phones coming to its network — the Huawei Mate 20 X 5G and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G. There are more due to come according to Three’s website, but this is all we have for the moment.
If you’re after a router instead of a smartphone, then Three has its 5G Home Broadband plan. Launching in August, this uses 5G signals to give high speed internet to whatever device you connect to it, and without needing an ethernet connection like traditional routers.
What you’ll pay for Three 5G
All of Three’s Mate 20 X plans come with a free M Pen stylus on any contract. Unlike other carriers, Three offers both a pay as you go option, which costs £999.99 for the handset, then a £10 minimum initial top-up, and a £90 a month option with no up-front cost. They’re certainly unique plans, but maybe they’ll suit some potential customers just right.
As for the normal contracts, it’s a choice between 4GB, 12GB, 30GB or unlimited data per month, all costing £79 upfront, and between £48 and £61 a month for 24 months. Notably the unlimited data option is currently at half price for six months, down from £61 to £30.50, which makes this a great deal if you’re interested in the Mate 20 X.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G is currently available for pre-order only. As with the Mate 20 X, you can get the handset for £1099.99 on a PAYG rate, or for £97 a month without an up-front cost. For standard contracts, it’s the same range between 4GB, 12GB or 30GB, or unlimited data, from £63 to £78 a month with a £29 upfront fee.
All of these contracts come with free roaming in 71 countries, and the 12GB data/month and up plans also have Three’s Go Binge feature, which doesn’t count the use of data in certain apps toward your monthly limit. That's great if you’re a power user of Netflix, Snapchat, Soundcloud or Apple Music.
We’ve still got a short wait ahead before Three launches its 5G offering, but what it has shown so far looks interesting. There’s only two phones to choose from so far, but the variety of contracts and included benefits should fit a wide range of people.
Three's initial launch may be tiny, but if the carrier does manage all 25 cities on its list by the end of 2019, and its promises about having the fastest and most reliable signal of all UK carriers hold true, then Three could be the carrier to beat going into 2020.