The network has formally confirmed that it will launch 5G at some point in 2019, likely the second half.
Second half 2019
Updated 20th February 2019
Three has always been something of an underdog. It’s a small network, but it has a lot going for it, including a big focus on data.
It also has a lot of 5G-capable spectrum, which the network believes puts it in the strongest position for an early 5G lead in the UK. And Three is in the process of overhauling its network, so it should be ready for 5G when the technology becomes commercially viable.
Full details of all this are below, along with everything else we know about Three’s 5G position.
Three has announced that it will launch its 5G network in 2019. During the same announcement it revealed that it plans to invest over £2 billion in 5G.
The network hasn’t said when in 2019 its 5G service will land, but it has said that it will begin equipment trials in the first half of 2019, so it sounds like we probably won’t see a launch before late 2019. But that’s in line with or ahead of most other networks.
We don’t yet know what Three’s 5G launch will look like – obviously not everywhere will have 5G on day one. In fact, 5G coverage probably won’t be comprehensive until many years after launch if 4G is anything to go by.
And speaking of 4G, Three initially launched its 4G network in London, Birmingham and Manchester, so those may well be the first places to get Three 5G as well.
There’s no guarantee, but it would make sense, since they’re also three of the most heavily populated cities in the UK. Swindon looks like it could also be among the first though.
Three hasn’t yet confirmed what 5G devices it will offer at launch, but a large number of 5G phones are currently in the works, including handsets from Samsung, OnePlus and more, so we’d expect there will be a reasonable selection on offer. We’ll update this section when we hear more.
Three is said to be starting a complete overhaul of its network, which will involve replacing its signalling equipment across the UK and will likely cost hundreds of millions of pounds. The multi-year project should make Three's network faster and more reliable now, and better able to cope with the demands of 5G in the future.
Three is also switching to a cloud-based core network, one which it has now begun initial trials of. This network is 5G-ready, as well as being more reliable, secure and agile, and able to keep up with growing capacity demands.
Additionally, three has added eighteen more data centres to its network, bringing the total from 3 to 21 and theoretically reducing the latency on its network in the process.
And Three has made an agreement with SSE Enterprise Telecoms to get its network connected to hundreds of BT exchanges and allow it to use fibre to connect mast sites to its core network. Part of that arrangement will see a network of fibre laid in London’s sewers.
That work could increase its network capacity twenty-fold, as well as improving the reliability of the network and enabling new Internet of Things (IoT) applications. All of that is vital to 5G.
5G is clearly a big focus for the network now, as in its financial report for the first half of 2018 it stressed that it is rebuilding its business around 5G.
But early 5G networks may well depend on a combination of technologies – not just 5G but 4G and fixed broadband too. As such, we can also look at what Three’s got there for an indication of its early 5G capabilities.
Three currently has 99.8% 4G population coverage, which is in line with major rivals, and its network is also often found to be one of the fastest other than EE’s, which bodes well.
Three has also purchased UK Broadband (full details of which you’ll find below in the development activities section), so it might be in a position to augment its 5G network with fixed broadband capabilities.
Three came away from the first 5G spectrum auction with less winnings than any other network, specifically just 20MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, covering the 3460 – 3480MHz range, and paying £151,296,000 for it.
EE and O2 meanwhile each got 40MHz (with O2 also scoring 40MHz of 4G-ready 2.3GHz spectrum), while Vodafone secured 50MHz in the 3.4GHz band.
However, Three has lots of spectrum ideal for 5G overall, as while it only came away with a small amount at Ofcom’s 5G spectrum auction, it already had a lot thanks to its purchase of UK Broadband.
Specifically, it has 40Mhz in the 3.4GHz band (namely the 3480 – 3500MHz and 3580 – 3600MHz range), plus 164MHz in the 3.6GHz - 4GHz range, on top of the 20MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum that it won at auction (covering the 3460 – 3480MHz range).
Three has specifically said that it believes all this spectrum makes it the best placed of the four main UK networks for early 5G leadership.
Since making that statement its position has improved slightly too, because it's had permission from Ofcom to adjust the location of some of the spectrum that it owns through UK broadband, with the 164MHz now being split between 3600-3680MHz and 3925-4009MHz.
The first of those blocks is the one that's changed here, as it now links up with the 3580-3600MHz spectrum which Three also has the rights to. That gives Three a 100MHz block of contiguous spectrum, which could allow for greater speeds and wider coverage when Three uses it for 5G.
Immediately useable spectrum
|3.4GHz held||3.6 – 4GHz held||Total spectrum held|
Note: 'Immediately useable spectrum' refers to spectrum in various bands that can be used now for 4G, 3G and 2G. Three holds spectrum in the 800MHz, 1.8GHz, and 2.1GHz bands.
On top of that, Three is already investing in 5G technologies, detailed below.
And this won’t have been its last chance to secure 5G spectrum, as there will be future 5G auctions for spectrum in the 3.6GHz - 3.8GHz bands as well as the 700MHz band.
Plus, Ofcom is also looking at other potential bands that could be used for 5G.
Three has now demonstrated superfast 5G home broadband in collaboration with Huawei. 5G broadband could be a real focus for the company, as it has also announced plans to launch a 5G wireless home broadband service in the second half of 2019, and has commissioned a report into broadband, finding that 5G broadband could be faster and cheaper than regular fibre broadband.
Other development activities
Three has acquired UK Broadband (owner of the London-only Relish wireless broadband company), and using the spectrum it acquired through that it’s set to launch “fixed wireless” broadband within three years, across an area that will serve roughly 40% of the UK population, according to The Telegraph in May 2017.
What’s that got to do with 5G speeds? Well, the network is set to be incredibly high-speed, in fact trials using the same frequencies have led to speeds of up to 1Gbps, so this could essentially be an early 5G service, just not a particularly mobile one.
The network could be a major force in the IoT too, as it’s partnered with Cisco Jasper to use that company’s IoT connectivity management platform, extending its own IoT capabilities. That’s important, as the IoT is set to be a major use of 5G.