Three doesn’t rely on just one frequency band for its mobile network. In fact, it uses quite a few of them, namely the 700MHz, 800MHz, 1400MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 3400MHz, and 3600-4000MHz frequencies.
But what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? And what does that mean for you? Read on below for answers to all that and more.
But first, we’ll explain what we actually mean by a frequency in the first place.
Frequencies are what mobile networks use for the transmission and reception of their network signals. So without access to frequency there would be no network.
But a number of different frequencies are used. In the UK there were 6 main ones used by mobile networks for 4G, namely 800MHz, 900MHz, 1400MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz and 2600MHz, with more coming into play to power 5G – primarily the 700MHz, 3400MHz, and 3600-4000MHz bands. And ever more bands may yet be used over time, as there’s a limited amount of capacity offered by each.
Three currently uses the following frequencies for mobile:
|700MHz||n29||4G & 5G|
|2100MHz||1||3G and 4G (LTE)|
|Check if your device is compatible with Three|
You’ll find full details of these and what Three uses them for below.
The 700MHz band is one that mobile networks only started using in 2021, as it was acquired during a 5G spectrum auction, however, it stands out from most 5G spectrum as it’s low frequency.
Being that low frequency comes with some key advantages, as the lower the frequency the further a signal can travel.
That means masts can be more spread out, so less infrastructure is potentially required, and rural locations (where masts tend to be few and far between) can still get a signal.
Low frequencies are also better than high frequencies at penetrating walls and other solid objects, so you’re more likely to get a signal in your home or office if the 700MHz band is in use. More generally this also makes the 700MHz band good for built up urban areas like cities.
However, low-frequency spectrum is also in short supply, so it lacks the capacity to power a 5G network on its own. This limitation also means that it doesn’t support the sorts of speeds you can get from high-frequency spectrum. As such, the 700Mhz spectrum can be used for 5G, but only in tandem with other bands.
Three holds 20MHz of 700Mhz spectrum, split into two 10MHz blocks covering the 713-723MHz and 768-778MHz parts of the 700MHz band. All of this was acquired at the 2021 5G spectrum auction.
The 800MHz band is among the lowest frequency of the bands used by UK mobile networks, and that means it has similar strengths to the 700MHz band. In other words it’s good at travelling over long distances and bringing coverage indoors.
It’s a good all-rounder then, but it’s also in relatively short supply. Mobile networks were only able to acquire small 5MHz and 10MHz blocks of it, which means it won’t necessarily cope with heavy data traffic as well as some other bands.
In that sense it’s less suited to cities, where a lot of people will be using mobile data at the same time. That’s one of the reasons it’s not alone. Three uses the 800MHz band for 4G, but the network also uses other bands for it, which we’ll get to below.
Three acquired two lots of 5MHz blocks of this band in Ofcom’s 2013 spectrum auction after the band was freed up by the death of analogue TV.
The 1400MHz (aka 1.4GHz) band has only relatively recently been employed by Three, and it’s going to be used at 6,000 of Three’s busiest sites to improve 4G speeds by up to 150%.
You’ll only get those speeds if you have a compatible handset (which includes many high-end and mid-range ones), but even without such a handset, speeds should still be boosted by around 50%. At the time of writing this upgrade work hasn’t yet finished, but it should be almost done, as it’s only set to run until 2023.
Indeed, much of the upgrade work is already complete, with Three announcing that it had brought this spectrum to over 1,900 sites by May of 2021 for example, and in some cases tripling 4G download speeds as a result – which makes for even higher speeds than the network’s earlier 150% estimates.
Three purchased 20MHz of this spectrum (also known as L-Band spectrum) in the 1452-1492MHz range all the way back in 2015, but only started using it more recently.
Being higher frequency than the 800MHz band means that it’s available in greater capacity, so it can deal with more simultaneous connections.
On the other hand, the 1400MHz band isn’t as long range as 800MHz and nor can it penetrate walls as well, so masts need to be closer together for it to work effectively, and it’s better outside than inside.
The 1800MHz (aka 1.8GHz) band is also used by Three for 4G and is one of the highest frequency bands that Three uses for 4G. As such, it emphasises both the strengths and weaknesses of the 1400MHz band – being available in high capacities but being shorter range and worse at passing through objects.
Individually all of these bands are flawed then, but they work well together, and even the 1800MHz band isn’t as high frequency as some bands used by other networks for 4G, or as the bands Three uses for 5G.
Three acquired its 1800MHz holdings from EE, which was required to sell some of its spectrum back in 2012 to ensure fair competition.
However, Three wasn’t allowed to access any of this until late 2013, with more becoming available for use in mid-2015.
As you can probably imagine, the 2100MHz (aka 2.1GHz) band emphasises the strengths of the 1800MHz band (namely capacity) but also suffers from the same weaknesses to a greater extent, as it’s shorter range still and not good at passing through walls and other solid objects.
However, it’s worth noting that while Three has some limited 4G coverage with this, it’s primarily used for 3G.
It’s useful for Three to have though, since the more frequency the network has in total the more reliable and widespread its network can be.
For 5G use Three holds 60Mhz of spectrum in the 3.4GHz band covering the 3460 – 3500MHz and 3580 – 3600MHz ranges, along with 164MHz in the 3.6GHz - 4GHz range, covering 3600-3680MHz and 3925-4009MHz.
You might have noticed that the 3580 – 3600MHz and 3600 – 3680Mhz blocks line up, which is no accident. Three arranged this with Ofcom, as it gives the network 100MHz of contiguous spectrum ideal for 5G, which could put it at an advantage over rivals.
All of these bands are short range and poor at passing through obstacles, but large blocks of them are available, giving them the capacity 5G is sure to need. Those weaknesses are why Three’s 700MHz spectrum could be usefully used in tandem with these bands, to provide a comprehensive 5G service.
This spectrum was acquired in part at Ofcom’s first 5G spectrum auction, held in 2018, and in part through Three’s purchase of UK Broadband.
It's worth noting that there's expected to be additional spectrum auctioned in future, so Three’s holdings could well increase.
The information contained on this website has been written to assist our readers. We do not represent Three or speak on its behalf and are entirely independent of Three.