June 29, 2015

Three 4G: Speeds and footprint

  As the smallest UK network and the last to launch 4G, how does Three 4G stack up for footprint, speed and reliability?

Three is undeniably playing catch-up with the other networks. It was last to the 4G party and its coverage trails substantially behind O2 and Vodafone, let alone EE.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering, as there’s more to 4G and certainly more to a network than coverage.

To give you an in depth insight into Three’s performance from not just a footprint perspective but also speed and reliability, we’ve created this guide, containing RootMetrics results across the second half of 2014.

The company put Three to the test in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield and by looking at all these areas combined we can start to get a clear picture of just where Three’s strengths and weaknesses lie.


Three chart1

By footprint we mean the likelihood of accessing 4G on the network in a given area and in Three’s case that likelihood is surprisingly low, with its largest footprint found in London and standing at just 44.0%.

To put that into perspective EE’s smallest footprint in the areas tested is still 48.5% and its highest is 92.9%, so that’s a pretty major mark against Three. In fact Three’s largest footprint was still smaller than O2 and Vodafone’s smallest too.

Its median footprint across the 16 areas is fairly disappointing as well at just 24.8%. But then this isn’t entirely surprising as the network started rolling out 4G after all the other networks so of course it doesn’t yet have the same footprint.

It’s also worth noting that as these stats only cover up until the end of 2014 its performance is likely to now be stronger, though still trails the competition.


Three chart3

Three might not have a large footprint but it sure is reliable and this is perhaps its greatest strength. When testing whether it was possible to connect to a network RootMetrics succeeded near or above 99% of the time in all markets where Three 4G was available and above 90% of the time where it wasn’t.

Three also held onto its network connectivity well, successfully completing web and app tests near or above 99% of the time in all 4G areas and above 97% of the time in 15 of 16 markets when 4G wasn’t available. This all makes it just about the most reliable network around.


Three chart2

We’re back to disappointment when it comes to speed, as Three’s single fastest recorded speed was 50.0Mbps in Sheffield. EE’s highest speed was almost double that and even O2 and Vodafone managed to get almost 15Mbps faster.

Its median speeds, which is the more important consideration, weren’t a match for rivals either. Three was the only network to never achieve a median speed of 20.0Mbps or higher in any of the 16 markets tested. Instead its highest median speed was 14.2Mbps in Nottingham, which actually ranks among the slowest medians offered by the other networks.

But the network did at least fairly consistently reach or exceed median speeds of 10Mbps on 4G, which should be fast enough to offer a smooth experience for most activities. Of the areas where 4G was accessible only London had a median speed of under 10Mbps, coming in at 9.7Mbps.

It’s also worth noting that Three’s 3G performance is excellent, with median download speeds of above 5Mbps and a high of 7.3Mbps in Belfast. The network also enjoyed solid combined median speeds of between 5 and 7.5Mbps in all markets except Hull. So while its 4G performance is lacking for now it’s a real winner when 4G isn’t available.


Three has a lot of work to do, that much is clear, with a fairly small footprint and relatively low 4G speeds. But it compensates somewhat with the strength of its 3G network and the fact that it’s so reliable. You may not get the fastest speeds on Three but at least you should almost always be able to connect to the network.

Looking ahead the future looks bright too, as its acquisition of O2 could massively bolster its 4G footprint in a small amount of time and then of course there are all the other benefits of Three, such as unlimited data tariffs and free roaming.

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