For a while, it looked like EE had the edge with 5G, as the network was first to launch a 5G service and that head start gave it an early lead, but it looks very much like Three has not just caught up with EE, but overtaken it.
The latest evidence of this comes from a recent Ookla article, drawing on performance data it collected during the first quarter of 2023.
This found that Three’s median 5G download speed during that period was 275.85Mbps. That’s far higher than the second-place speed of 138.90Mbps, achieved by Vodafone, while EE trailed with 111.14Mbps, and O2 came last with 70.63Mbps.
Three’s speed was also 2.2x faster than the overall UK median 5G download speed (in other words the median of all these networks combined) of 124.06Mbps.
So why is Three so much faster? Ookla pointed to three key reasons, with the first being that it’s the only UK network with a 100MHz continuous block of C-band (high frequency) 5G spectrum. Having such a block is part of the minimum technical requirements to meet 5G performance requirements according to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), and it seems to be paying off for Three.
That’s not all though, Ookla also notes that Three has been continually investing in its 5G network, as evidenced by its 5G availability growing from 19.1% in Q1 2022, to 26.4% in Q1 2023. Both of those figures are also higher than the UK average network 5G availability, of 14.0% and 20.7% in Q1 2022 and Q1 2023, respectively. Note though that these figures aren’t talking just about coverage, but also about other factors that make getting 5G viable, such as the price and availability of 5G phones on a network.
Ookla notes that these investments in 5G have included £2 billion over five years, which has been used to transform Three's network, complete with rolling out a cloud core ahead of rivals, and going from three data centres to 19.
Efficiency and sustainability have also been a focus for Three, as the network has looked to retire legacy technologies and improve thermal management.
Unsurprisingly this has all led to a large take-up of 5G by the network’s customers, helped further by this speedy data being offered as standard on Three plans. In all, Three’s 5G traffic tripled from just 3% of total network traffic in 2021, to over 9% in 2022, and it’s likely the figure is even higher now.
This also isn’t the first report to put Three in the lead, with recent RootMetrics tests for example also suggesting that Three’s 5G is faster than rivals. So if you want the best possible 5G, then Three is the place to be.