- High speed dongles
- Dedicated 3G network
- MiFi personal wireless network
- Network-sharing deal with Everything Everywhere
- No SIM-only PAYG deals
- UK’s smallest network
- Poor customer service record
- No 12-month contracts
Three was the UK’s first mobile 3G broadband provider, and since launching in 2003 it has won 3.5 million customers. It’s the UK’s smallest mobile network operator, but the only one with a network dedicated to 3G, and it’s currently conducting a trial of next-generation 4G mobile broadband, which it claims will give real-life speeds of up to 10Mbps.
As with most mobile broadband providers it offers SIM-only deals for tablets and laptops with a built-in 3G modem and 3G USB dongles which plug into your laptop. There are two USB dongles - a standard stick and a premium stick which can fold out of the way to save space in crowded places like trains.
Three was the first UK operator to offer a personal wireless network device, called MiFi, which can supply a 3G connection via WiFi networking to up to five devices. If you just want a personal network at home, Three has a Wi-Fi Hub which extends your USB dongle to up to five devices, just like MiFi.
Pay-as-you-go deals come in 1GB, 3GB and 12GB options, with the capacity lasting longer the more you buy, while there’s a 48-hour top-up as well as larger top-ups lasting 30-day.
Contract options start with one-month rolling contracts which can be cancelled at any time, plus18-month and 24-month contracts, but no 12-month contracts. Usage limits range from 1GB/month to 15GB/month, and the high-end 15GB option includes the potential for a bundled copy of Microsoft Office.
It also offers deals on the iPad2, HTC Flyer and Samsung laptops, where customers can get a discount on the upfront price against their broadband contract cost, and are quite good value.
Ofcom’s 2011 customer service satisfaction survey was a mixed result for Three, which saw more customers contact the company during the research period than any other provider (39 per cent), and a higher proportion of complaints and fault issues than average. At 63 per cent, it had the lowest number of customers saying they were satisfied, although only 11 per cent said they were dissatisfied, making it the fourth worst out of five.
Three has the smallest chunk of the UK’s mobile broadband capacity, but it’s all dedicated to 3G. A network sharing deal with Everything Everywhere gives it 97 per cent coverage of the UK’s population, which means its concentrated in urban areas, where there are the most people.
Three has been upgrading its network to HSPA+ for some time and it aims to have 80 per cent of the UK covered for HSPA+ by the end of 2011. They use HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access Plus) to connect at a theoretical top speed of 21Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up. Real downlink speeds are likely to be at least a quarter of this, but in Ofcom’s 2010 mobile broadband speed survey, Three users saw average speeds of 2.2-2.5Mbps with uploads at around 800kbps.
In addition to SIM-only deals (available in standard or iPad-style micro-SIM formats), Three has a choice of two Huawei’s 3G USB dongles and their MiFi personal network dongle. All of them support HSPA+ and have a microSD card slot which you can use to carry up to 32GB of data with you on the move - handy for music you want to access from several devices.
The standard dongle is the Huawei E353, a simple USB stick available in black and white, which measures 89x27x12mm and weighs 30g. The premium dongle is the Huawei E367, which has a flexible connector that can be rotated up to 90 degrees. It measures 89x43x14.5mm and weighs 50g.
Three also has a personal wireless networking device, called MiFi. This is a 3G modem with a built-in secure WiFi network, to which you can connect up to five devices. The pebble-sized Huawei E586 measures 95x49x14,1mm, weighs 90g, and is available in black or white. It charges via micro USB and comes with a compact charging cradle for use at home or in the office, with a battery life of 100 hours in standby.
If you want to share your dongle with more people or devices at home or work, there’s also a WiFi Hub. Your USB dongle plugs into this mains-powered unit, and up to five devices can connect to it via WiFi from up to 30m away. It costs £39.99 and measures just 88x66x25mm.
Laptops and tablets
Three has special broadband deals for the iPad2 and HTC Flyer tablets, and a range of Samsung laptops.
An iPad2 with 32GB memory costs £279 plus £25/month on a 24-month contract with 10GB monthly allowance, or £579 plus £15/month on a one-month contract.
The HTC Flyer, a 7in Android tablet with 32GB memory, costs £99 plus £20/month with a 15GB limit, over 24 months.
Samsung’s Windows 7 laptops come in a range of specifications, starting at £26.20/month and rising to £46.24/month, all over 24 months, with a choice of standard or premium dongles.
Apps and software
If you’re using a dongle or SIM-only connection PCs and Macs connect to the internet using the 3Connect Dashboard, which auto-installs when the dongle is connected to the computer, or can be downloaded for SIM-only users.
As well as managing your connection, 3Connect can also be used to monitor your broadband usage and buy add-ons or top-ups.
The MiFi is managed via a built-in web page once you’ve connected, which doesn’t let you top-up but does allow you to send text messages.
iPad users can download the Three app from iTunes, which lets you manage your account, check your bill, top-up your account and check coverage.
Accessing your Three account is always free and doesn’t count against your data allowance.
Pay as you go
There are three pay-as-you go tarrifs for Three’s mobile broadband.
The +1 comes pre-loaded with 1GB of data, valid for 30 days. It’s £29.99 with a standard dongle and £39.99 with a premium dongle. There’s no +1 MiFi option.
The +3 comes pre-loaded with 3GB of data, valid for 3 months. It’s £39.99 with a standard dongle, £49.99 with a premium dongle and £84.99 with MiFi.
The +12 comes pre-loaded with 12GB of data, valid for 12 months. It’s £89.99 with a standard dongle, £99.99 with a premium dongle and £134.99 with MiFi.
Top-ups valid for 30 days cost £10 for 1GB, £15 for 5GB and £25 for 7GB, or £2.99 for a one-day 500MB top-up.
If you buy a top-up and don't use all the data you've paid for, your credit will stay on your My3 account for a month before it expires. Pay-per-day data only lasts until midnight on the day after you buy it. If you run out of data, Three will redirect you to your My3 account to buy another top-up.
Three’s monthly mobile broadband tariffs depend on how much data you need, the hardware you choose and how long you want the contract to last. Data allowances don’t roll over from one month to another, so any data you haven't used by the end of the month won't be carried over.
The Broadband Lite package has a 1GB limit and starts from £7.50/month SIM-only, £7.87/month with the standard dongle, £8.89/month with the premium dongle and £10.87/month for MiFi. There’s no price difference between the 18 month and 24 month contracts.
Broadband 5GB has - you guessed - a 5GB monthly limit. It costs £15.99/month SIM-only. If you have a one-month contract there’s a one-off charge of £4.99 for the standard dongle, £19.99 for the premium dongle and £49.99 for MiFi. This is added onto the 18-month contract costs of £15.99/month with the standard dongle, £17.01/month with the premium dongle, and £18.99/month with MiFi.
Broadband 10GB is SIM-only, capped at 10GB per month and costs £15/month on a one-month contract.
Broadband 15GB has a 15GB cap and with the standard dongle starts at £20.99/month on an 18 month contract, or £15.99/month over 24 months. With the premium dongle, it’s £22.01/month for 18 months or £17.01/month for 24 months. For MiFi, it’s £23.99/month or 18 months or £18.99/month for 24 months.
You can also get a copy of Microsoft Office bundled with your broadband on a 24-month, 15GB contract for £19.99/month with a standard dongle or £21.01/month with a premium dongle.
Data allowances don’t roll over from one month to another, so any data you haven't used by the end of the month won't be carried over. If you go over your data allowance, you'll still be able to access the internet but you'll be charged 10.2p for every Megabyte of data you use. If you exceed your data allowance by £50, you'll be disconnected.
Three Mobile User Reviews
"Good PAYG; you get 150MB free (lasts 1/mo) whenever you top up the phone with £5 Bad: no warning when bandwidth or other bundles expires except a text message once you've spent a chunk of it -you need to track these things or get monthly bundles and put reminders in your calendar. Bad: cost of making/receiving calls outside the EU are awful. Turn your entire phone off there. Support: mixed."
"I have been using 3 for my Samsung Galaxy S2 now for almost a year and am overall very satisfied with the service. I live on Anglesey and work in Bangor an generally get much better coverage than my partner does with his Vodafone. Some issues:
- Invoicing isn't very clear
- Roaming costs are extortionate - I use to be on O2 and texts abroad would just equal 5 of your quota - much better than charging 12p per text. Don't even get me started on data."
"Great network coverage, but you need to pay extra to get a new SIM card when you loose it and their SIM cards only work on 3g enabled phones, not on feature phones..."
"Tried a few mobile broadband networks, and 3 are by far the fastest I've found. Get great 3G coverage in rural areas too that with other networks I struggled to get a signal at all."
"They have the widest 3G coverage. I've never had any problems with customer service. I only wish they allowed tethering on PAYG."