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Three review: The start of a 5G comeback?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
8
Starting at

High speeds and growing coverage, but Three’s customer support needs to improve

Pros 
Improved 4G and 5G speeds
Accelerated 5G rollout
Good all-round reliability
Cons 
Worries over customer service
Scores for value could be higher
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When we looked at Three for last year’s Mobile Network Awards, we pondered whether the network was building up to a 5G comeback. Twelve months later and the Three-naissance is beginning to happen.

It’s now a leader on 5G coverage and beginning to surge ahead when it comes to performance, though it still faces stiff competition from Vodafone and – especially – EE. Interestingly, the network is supposedly in early talks on a merger with Vodafone, though judging by the glacial pace at which these things move, you probably won’t see any impact for a year or more.

Is this reflected in better results in this year’s Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards survey? Well, Three still has work to do on its customer service, but its scores for value are improving. Perhaps most critically, only 67% of the Three subscribers we spoke to would recommend the network to a friend; a better score than Virgin Mobile (61%) and Vodafone (65.5%), but a long way off the pace set by Smarty (92%), Voxi (almost 90%) and Lebara (95%).

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Three review: What do you get?

For a while, one of Three’s big selling points was that it offered the latest phones at cheaper prices than the other major networks. It was also one of the best networks to choose for unlimited data deals, and it let you use your data allowance abroad at no extra cost.

The first two points still hold true today, to some extent. Buy an iPhone 14 on Three, and you could have it for £49/mth over 24 months plus £30 upfront, though with a risible 1GB of data. Up the data to a more realistic 100GB and the price rises to £61/mth plus £30 upfront, at which point you might as well go the extra mile and pay £63 a month for unlimited data. That’s not a bad price, especially when £63 on EE will only net you 125GB, but you could have the same phone plus unlimited data for £42/mth on iD Mobile – though you will get hit with a £99 upfront charge.

It's a slightly different story with the Samsung Galaxy S22, which comes in at £47/mth plus £30 for 100GB, but would cost you £59/mth with 125GB on EE. Again, though, iD Mobile is cheaper still with a £33/mth 100GB data deal, with £29 upfront.

What about SIM-only contracts? These start at £8/mth for a rather measly 1GB contract on a 24-month contract, but with a 50% discount for the first six months. On a 12-month contract, there’s no discount and the price rises by £1. You get better deals for 12GB or 30GB, at £12/mth and £14/mth with the same terms, except there’s a £2 price hike with each if you only sign up for one year.

There was a time when Three’s Advanced Unlimited plan was arguably the best SIM-only deal of them all, and at £24/mth over 24 months, with the first six months half-price, it’s still a lot cheaper than the equivalent packages from EE, O2, Giffgaff or Vodafone. However, iD Mobile and Smarty have unlimited deals that are even cheaper, so Three no longer has this niche to itself.

Monthly fee (1 month)Monthly fee (12 months)Monthly Fee (24 months)DataTextsMinutes
Advanced 1GBn£9£8 (£4 for first six months)1GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 4GB£19£10£9 (£4.50 for first six months)4GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 8GBn£11£10 (£5 for first 6 months)8GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 12GB£22£14£12 (£6 for first 6 months)12GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 30GB£24£16£14 (£7 for first 6 months)30GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 100GBn£18£16 (£8 for first 6 months)100GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced 250GBn£20£20 (£10 for first six months)250GBUnlimitedUnlimited
Advanced Unlimited£28£24£24 (£12 for first six months)UnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited

Looking at our survey data, Three doesn’t stand out when it comes to bang for buck. True, over a third of customers say they’re very satisfied with the network’s value for money, while nearly half say they’re fairly satisfied, but that’s still only a total of 84%, while the likes of iD Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Voxi and Lebara are polling in the nineties.

Three review: Customer service

Three also seems to be struggling when it comes to customer service. Nearly 27% of the users we surveyed are very satisfied, with a further 50% fairly satisfied, but that still puts it behind most of the other networks in our survey, with the exception of iD Mobile, Lebara, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.

Ofcom’s latest customer service and satisfaction report is also critical of Three. With a score of 86%, the network scores below the 91% average for overall customer satisfaction. It also has the highest percentage of customers with a reason to complain (16%) and more complaints to Ofcom per 100,000 subscribers than the average. Something is clearly going wrong here, and Three should really look at improving its customer service moving forward.

Three review: Coverage, reliability and speed

The latest performance research from RootMetrics has some excellent news for Three: it’s leapfrogged Vodafone in the UK speed tables to grab second place behind EE. Three now has a median UK download speed of 29.9Mbits/sec, putting it behind EE at 66.2Mbits/sec, but ahead of Vodafone’s 23.8Mbits/sec. The biggest improvements have been in UK cities. Of the 16 areas in which RootMetrics conducts its tests, Three’s median download speed was faster than 20Mbits/sec in all of them, and faster than 40Mbits/sec in eight.

While RootMetrics no longer provides coverage maps, Three claims its 4G coverage reaches around 99.8% of the UK population, while 5G services are available to approximately 56%, with plans to roll out further and faster over the next few years. What’s more, Three is beginning to pull ahead of EE on 5G median download speeds, reaching nearly 200Mbits/sec. Interestingly, Three and Vodafone’s potential merger seems mostly driven by a desire to speed up both networks’ rollout of 5G.

For the first time this year, our awards survey asked readers about their 5G experiences, and Three had the third-best result behind EE and Sky Mobile. Just over half of Three’s 5G customers (51.5%) were satisfied with their 5G connection. That still leaves nearly half of them dissatisfied, of course, with the major issues being patchy 5G coverage (for nearly 65%) and a lack of noticeable speed improvements (for 44%).

Three came within touching distance of a Highly Commended in our Reliability category. 86% of users say it’s mostly or always fast enough for web browsing, and 71% say the same about audio streaming. Even video streaming, the trickiest task, is fine most of the time for 50% of users, and fine all of the time for 12%. Only Voxi had better results for video streaming, and Smarty only pulls ahead overall thanks to a stronger performance for web browsing and audio streaming.

Three review: Roaming

Like most other major networks, Three now charges £2 a day for EU roaming on all contracts purchased after October last year. What’s more, there’s now a £5-a-day charge to use inclusive minutes, texts and data in its Go Roam Around the World Destinations, which include a wide range of countries outside of Europe, including Australia, Hong Kong, the USA, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand. In either case, there’s a 12GB fair usage limit on data. Outside your allowance, calls can cost anywhere between 3p a minute, 2p a text and 1p a MB to £2 a minute, 35p a text and £6 a MB, depending on where you are and who you’re calling. These prices aren’t as exorbitant as some networks are charging, but it’s now much harder to recommend Three as a good option for affordable roaming.

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Three review: Other services and spending caps

Three offers Wi-Fi calling on some (though not all) of its handsets, along with a feature that allows you to make calls over a 4G data connection to give you more reliable calls in poor signal areas. Three even supports Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi calling in over 250 stations on the London Underground.

You’re also covered for spending caps: pick a level between £10 and £100 over your regular contract payment, and you won’t be allowed to make additional calls or use additional data beyond that.

Three review: Verdict

Three has made real progress since last year. Speeds and coverage are improving fast, and it’s ahead of rivals with its 5G rollout. Its scores for reliability are very good. However, the network still needs to sort out its customer service and there’s work to do if it wants to recapture some of its old reputation for value for money. Three still has its share of strong packages and deals, but there’s now more competition than ever.

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