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Study of 5G and 4G Congestion Finds Three UK Suffers Most

Friday, November 27th, 2020 (2:53 pm) - Score 30,984
5g signal

Crowdsourced benchmarking firm Tutela has just published the results of a new study, which examined the effect of network congestion on 4G and the latest ultrafast 5G based mobile broadband networks from EE (BT), Vodafone, O2 and Three UK. Sadly Three suffered the most and slowed by over 36% during peak hours, on average.

Tutela acknowledges that there is “no strict threshold of congestion used by network engineers” and indeed you can use different metrics to study it, although they don’t appear to fully explain what methodology they themselves have chosen. But from what we can gather, they seem to be generally looking at the difference between peak (busy) vs off-peak (not busy) periods.

The above issue is important because mobile speeds can vary due to multiple different factors (e.g. distance, location, bands being used, cell site capacity, buildings etc.) and so being able to establish a baseline is important, albeit also inherently difficult on such variable platforms.

In this case Tutela seem to be relying on a general analysis of the crowdsourced performance data from their previous report (here), which collected over 180 million speed and latency tests via mobile apps. Overall, the new study noted that, during peak hours, 10% of all tests were below 1.5Mbps. Hull, Bedford, Slough and Southampton were also among the worst impacted cities, experiencing nearly a 50% drop in speed during peak hours.

Tutela 5g congestion uk cities november 2020

The fact that Hull tops this list is quite interesting, not least since it’s a city with practically universal coverage of full fibre (FTTP) broadband infrastructure from KCOM, while Cityfibre also do a lot of Dark Fibre to mobile sites. However, as stated earlier, mobile performance is a complicated area to benchmark.

The firm then noted that Three UK’s network “suffers the highest level of congestion” among the major UK MNOs, slowing by over 36% during peak hours, on average. By comparison, Vodafone suffered the least congestion on 22.44%.

% Slowdown in Average Download Throughput
1. Three UK 36.49%
2. O2 31.16%
3. EE 25.41%
4. Vodafone 22.44%

The study also looked at the difference between download and upload throughput. “Download throughput is typically faster than upload throughput, so looking at the percentage of tests where the inverse is true can help identify congestion,” said Tutela.

Across the country, Vodafone has the highest proportion of tests where upload is faster than download. However, Three UK is on par with it, or worse, during peak hours between 4-9pm.


The fact that customers on some networks, like Three UK, might be more data hungry than those on others, is another factor to consider. However, part of this is because Three UK were one of the first operators to offer “all you can eat” (now “unlimited“) data plans on their 4G network, which is something that EE, O2 and Vodafone have only recently adopted with the launch of 5G.

As ever we’re still in the early phase of 5G rollouts and some operators have also been dealt a heavy blow by the Government’s decision to ban Huawei, which has impacted the rollout plans for Three UK, EE and Vodafone. However, we note that most operators are continuing to upgrade the fibre optic backhaul capacity of their mobile sites and Ofcom will soon be releasing more radio spectrum for 5G, which bodes well for the future.

As usual we must also stress that any testing conducting via non-dedicated apps could be less accurate than dedicated ones (e.g. opensignal). Crowdsourced data can also be affected by the user’s location, as well as any limitations of the device being used and it similarly lacks a common type of hardware (useful when trying to form a solid scientific baseline). Take with a pinch of salt.

UPDATE 4:42pm

Just a quick correction. While Tutela only specifically referenced 5G in their summary, the actual data covers both 4G and 5G.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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65 Responses
  1. Paul says:

    Didn’t really need a study for this one 3 in County Durham is hopeless

    1. William wooding says:

      Im on the 3 network

    2. marcus says:

      Yes, in my old home of Lausanne, you know switzerland, with massive distanced between 4G transmitters, even in the mountains I got upto 110 Mbits/second which dropped to a shocking 60Mbps under extreme load. Now back in England my 3UK SIM gives me 50Mbps best even with a specialist aerial and often down to <30Mbps. It's sad and shocking. The dark ages indeed.

    3. neo says:

      you kill your people with infrastructures and microwaves and make them more sick, but you will denie that like all asholes, I know it’s bad I know what is frequency, xhina has 700000 5g towers ist that sick or normal to you all,people don’t need 5g except governance olive army and other technocrats who cash in from all of us… we dont need Digital we need natural and more ambiental infrastructures what will leave people privacy and freedom not Marketing and jail.. shame all of you

    4. Mark says:

      @ Neo

      I take it you’ve been well and truly red pilled not that you’d know. Not everything is a conspiracy and normal people have no interest in the nonsense you spout.

  2. Michael V says:

    This seems like conflicting research. Ookla has recently showed Three are the fastest for average mean download speeds on 5G-NR through the day.
    No mention of congestion. These companies must be made to show their methodology.
    I have Tutela app. I usually let it run when I’m out in background, just as I do with Opensignal, RootMetrics, CellMapper, SpeedTest.

    I don’t have a 5G phone just yet but I will nxt month.

    1. Connor says:

      From my own personal experience typical Three masts suffer hard from congestion but if they’ve had the full upgrade for 5G (new backhual, 100mhz 5G and band 32 4G added) they tend to preform amazingly during peak.

      So non-upgraded bad, upgraded really good.

  3. Buggerlugz says:

    The best bit missing from these statistics is that whilst three 5g slows by 36.5%, it also leans on 4g Bandwidth, thus slowing down Three’s 4g customers in those area’s far worse.

  4. Danny says:

    Three has to be the worst network I have ever used for data, I simply can never get a good connection even though it shows I have full signal. The fix from Three, use 3G instead.

    Funnily enough it is faster then their dire 4G service

    1. neo says:

      that doesn’t have anything with 2g 3g 4g as you know there isn’t sattelites that’s the real meaning for higher band network and building 5g towers above your head.. rethink calculate deep inspect than say it loud.. it’s fraud network like any other business for harvesting data money and privacy.. three main factor.. and you still talking about bad signal its because bad repetitors and leak of good eco infrastructure what we need and all mankind… have a nice day dude

    2. Mark says:

      @ neo

      More absolute gibberish.

  5. Jack says:

    Just remember guys, “If it’s not Three, it’s not real 5G”

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      More like “If it’s in the UK, it’s not real 5g”

  6. Jamez says:

    Three network is over subscribed.

    Was a customer with Three when they first switched on their 3G network.I was getting 22Mbps on 3G 2004.

    Their network needs to be updated,i get a faster speed on 3G than 4G.Peak times 0.9Mbps 4pm onwards.The mast is on top off my tower block roof.

    I heard some rumours they upgrading their backhaul network,about time!!

    1. Jack says:

      They recently announced 20 data centres but as others said unless they upgrade the mast backhaul then it’s not going to solve anything


    2. Matt says:

      Exactly, I’m shocked ofcom doesn’t do anything about it.

      They are advertising they can give you 4G connectivity, but can’t deliver on speed.

      I was getting same speed in Central London, I couldn’t believe it. Once I switched to EE I got speeds that were 15 times faster at the same time of the day.

  7. Ben says:

    No news there, Three are pretty useless in Scotland. Especially in urban areas like Glasgow with lots of hilly, indoor built areas.

  8. Quintin says:

    Yeah like we didn’t see that coming lol

    I’ve gone from Three to EE – like a beetle to a ferrari!

  9. André says:

    I’m surprised that Three would struggle with 5G, bearing in mind how much contiguous spectrum they’ve been allocated for that technology and the relatively small number of 5G subscribers.
    Early days of deployment, I realise, but still…

  10. Claire says:

    Beware guys three are capping the unlimited new contracts to 500GB data transfer limit just like EE did from 1TB to 600Gb.
    They even removed go binge and charging customers 4.5 percent from April even only allow you to roam 3 months Max before they cut you off abroad…

    1. ... says:

      Where have you seen or heard that Three are placing a 500GB cap on Unlimited Plans? Checking the website does not mention anything about this, even in the terms & conditions on fair usage?

    2. Henri says:

      I’ve used 1.98TB-2TB monthly on my Three Advanced Unlimited Sim last month – connected my SIM to a 5G Router and get 450/45 over 5G.

      Threes’ upgraded 5G network is leaps beyond the mess 4G had.

      I know EE cap at 1TB but Three doesn’t seem to at least they have not notified me yet as of three months.

      Want to know where you’ve found this 500GB cap – we do know they have the ability to throttle you or move you over to business if they deem your usage is unfair but I haven’t seen it coming anyways lol.

    3. Jack says:

      I’m assuming this is a troll post, I use just under 5tb monthly and haven’t had any problems or warnings.

    4. Henri says:


      Yes I agree, just checked the Terms and Conditions of my Contract after the changes on the 29th October and it states to go to Three.co.uk/priceguide for further information fair usage policies.

      On the price guide (as modified by Three on 29/10/2020) – it states on page 28, that “there are no hidden fair use policies within the UK.”

      The 5G marketing all over the website suggests no data caps.

      They could be confused with Smarty who do cap at 1TB and use the Three nework.

      “If you have unlimited data units as part of your package or with an Add-on, there are no hidden fair use policies within the UK.
      However, if you’re in a Go Roam in Europe destination, you will be subject to our fair use limits meaning you can use up to 20,480
      data units (which converts into 20GB of data) each month. When in a Go Roam Around the World destination you’ll be able to use
      up to 12GB of data each month (12,288 data units). Unlimited data units should give you all the access to the Internet you would
      normally need, without worrying about hefty bills.”

    5. Michael V says:

      @Claire. They definitely are not capping unlimited data use. Whatever you’ve been told us wrong. You’re free to use more than 500GB.

    6. tim hunson says:

      Three say they are capping for now how long will this unlimited no fair usage last for last for plenty people already downloading 8tb – 15tb on this page a month surely no business or mobile can survive with this abuse on the network….

  11. gobblebobble says:


    I’ve taken a quick look at the price guide on three dated 20.10.2020 and it makes no mention of the fair use policy you described.

    Can you point us in the direction of something concrete as I am having trouble believing that!

    1. Mark says:

      Twitter three today they said more information soon to the T&C changes looks like she telling the truth used over 1.4tb connection speeds is less than 1mb night and day off peak and on peak….

    2. Someone says:

      Anyone got a limo to the tweet or info on this 500GB limit as I have looked through every like in any terms right up to date and also every tweet to see where this limit is mentioned and not found a thing

    3. Michael V says:

      @Someone. I don’t think they have done that. Unlike EE they’d put it in their T&C’s.

  12. gobblebobble says:


    I very much doubt you were getting those kind of speeds in 2004.

    What device were you using? nothing around that time was capable of such a speed.

    The network was basically UMTS with a maximum throughput of 384KBps

  13. Name says:

    Three was always a laughing stock. You can even say that there are three mobile operators in the UK: EE, Vodafone and O2.

    1. André says:

      Although I am not with Three (as they don’t yet support eSIM technology), they are unbeatable value without 24 month contracts or charging extra for 5G (I’m looking at you, EE).
      Unfortunately you get what you pay for, and their severe Achilles heel is they customer service (or what passes for it).
      Network performance is a mixed bag, but their 100MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum might make for
      Some very interesting performance 🙂

    2. Davros says:

      The Black Friday deal on EE is good – £20 for 200GB 5G – I pay £37 for unlimited 5G even though I can’t get it where I live but I still get 300-400mbps a lot of the time. I’ve also done over 600GB most months and had no issues.

      I have 2 sims for £41 and I can bung up to 120GB of data onto my wife’s sim for nothing. (she’s on a very cheap 250mb deal) But I consider £41 a month for 2 sims and all the data we can eat a bargain – even more so it’s on EE: I’ve got screenshots of an O2 contract, 3 contract and the EE contract on the same phone in the same location – let’s just say Three come second by .5 of a Mbps (both under 5mbps anyway) Vodafone via Voxi anything from 20-50mbps and EE stomps over all of them. According to Cellmapper EE is the only service to actually cover us. The rest stop a few hundred yards away.

  14. NoTheeFourMe says:

    completely unrelated: unlimited 5G for £15 come n get it !

    1. Davros says:

      NO thanks it’s likely to be junk.

  15. Amroze says:

    Im on EE on older Super-Max plans, which has 4G+ speed, more than double speed. I tried in London 290mb, Slough 250mb, Leeds, 230mb, York 200mb, Birmingham, liverpool, Manchester, preston, 200mb. Very fast even at busy times doesn’t drop below 120mb. Unbelievable.
    But i get 50Gb for £30.

    1. Davros says:

      The black friday deal might interest you – either 160 or 200GB for I think about £20 a month 12 month deal.

  16. Jfive says:

    I think that you must have your wires crossed, three are far out running the compaction /EE ect but I suspect you got your information from the government which are trying to rule/run three as a network out of th UK as the government can’t control three, however its all about making money and we all know who suffers, well things are going to change

    1. Davros says:

      Three are doing nothing of the sort – your comment is pompous I suspect you get your info from your staff handbook? Shame on you

    2. Henri says:

      Davros, try to find a competitive 5G network in the UK with the best value for unlimited data.

      Bet you the EE shills are nearly double the price of Three /s

  17. Bob says:

    Bournemouth and surrounding areas are useless on 3, I’m looking to change, but who is better ?

  18. Kerby says:

    I have to say I’m a 4g connection from three, vodaphone and ee. Im in an area that didn’t (until a month ago) have more that 2mb Internet.
    I’m in a rural area where its uncontested for bandwidth so I think its a fair representation.
    Ee I use for work and gaming due to the 1tb limit a month seems alot but online updates and YouTube etc. I get an average 140mb.

    Three I use on my tvs. I get a steady 80mb. I can stream propper 4k. I also use it directed at my nas for pulling in data from my offsite Nas. Its truly unlimited. As I have done over 3tb before.

    Vodaphone is bloody useless.. I have the highest speed they offer, I get 40mb, the ping is normally in the 100s. It blocks vpn somehow. It also goes up and down alot. Yet I pay it as my ee and three are provided by the same mast. Meaning I lose both and have to failover to keep working and online.

    For me three has been great, yes if in a city it suffers, however its never giving me a problem. You pay near half the price than the others, it will be over subscribed as people will use it.

    1. Danny says:

      Have you tried 02 as a failsafe?

    2. Davros says:

      I managed to pull 3.4TB over virgin mobile which is a limited EE connection. No issues

    3. Henri says:


      And I use 1.98TB this month.

      No problems with any cap or throttling.

    4. Ben says:

      Do you have the adult filter still turned on? Might be why VPNs are getting blocked.

  19. James Pestell says:

    I am on 5G with Three near Bedford and tried a speed test where there is 5G. I got 841Mbits Download and 81.5Mbits upload. I think that is more than fast enough!

    1. Davros says:

      Cool! then as you used an app with history you will be able to pull up and upload a screenshot then won’t you…

      Otherwise it’s bullshit and GTFO

    2. Henri says:

      Those are my old results via ZTE MC801 on first floor.

      Move it to the top of the house, uploads are tons better.

      Signal Strength-88 dBm
      Connected Band15.0MHz@1800(B3)+10.0MHz@2100(B1)
      5G Signal Strength-91 dBm
      5G Connected BandN78


    3. Michael V says:

      @Davros. Don’t think James needs to justify himself to a hater of a Network.
      It ain’t BS.
      Where I used to live I had excellent speeds on my Three home 4G broadband.
      Where I am now varies but useable to watch TV. We don’t need 500mbps just to scroll thru twitter & watch TV.

    4. Davros says:

      I am not a “network hater” – are you going to start using grown up words? I asked him to prove it and he did – well sort of – and enjoy it because as more and more jump on that will go.. But he proved it so I am happy.

    5. James Pestell says:

      To show my result.

      Check out my Speedtest result! How fast is your internet?

    6. JitteryPinger says:


      Nice result, Three will surely lead the way on 5G speed IMO, unless something drastic happens at next auctions.

      It is a shame though that there is a large proportion of customers that struggle with network performance.

    7. Matthew B says:

      Hi James, no doubt Three’s 5g signal in Bedford itself is excellent. However I’m sitting here in literally adjoining Kempston and 4g performance is horrendous now. Was with Three for years, and if the speeds over the last 12 months hadn’t dropped to the levels they had I’d still be sitting pretty on my unlimited data for £13.68 a month I had. But I’ve had to swap for EE and yes pay more in the process but at least get excellent speeds even at peak. Three can’t claim 4g speeds in an area when you can get 85Mbps plus overnight, but in the same location during peak times only get 1.5Mbps on 4g and 6Mbps on 3g. (Full signal on both, running on both a Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy S20 FE as well as on a 4g Router.

  20. ian greenwood says:

    Answer seems to be – rarely use mobile phone for broadband – use simple system
    SOLUTION FOR A WEALTHIER PLANET mobile phone for calls and emergency broadband
    computer for emails and searches while at home
    let everyone know whatsapp is off most of the time – good for international calls
    have a quiet life!
    get off addiction to films
    read books/emails slowly and carefully
    adjust economic system to be back to economical
    fix losses of warmth – ring Greenwood Structures – have more time and money to spare. Its free! but make notes with pen and paper
    get traditional hand-skill – wood working, smoothing, etc

    1. Potman says:


  21. Sam says:

    I live in Preston and I get under 1mb in 4g network with 3bars.. Moved to Vodafone just today and I get 45mb in 4g with 4bars full.. 3 struggling in 4g in my area never mind 5g!!

  22. Ashraf says:

    hello three my bill every month‘£75 contract more than three week there’ Service is very bad

  23. Buggerlugz says:

    Three don’t pay any attention to anything said on here Ashraf.

    1. Emilia says:

      Yes I believe so, but I have to say Three has a lot more 5G coverage than what their coverage map indicates. That map is slow to get updated, and the places with unofficial coverage can get speeds between 150-200 mbps easily. I would recommend you to use tether using your phone if you have a 5G capable device. There is a good chance of 5G showing up on your phone.

  24. John says:

    Lol used over 10tb of data in 1 month https://ibb.co/MMRwcL1

    1. This guy says:

      I think everyone in your area is your internet. Might I suggest to add a password on your wireless connection.

    2. Paul yakes says:

      To be honest if you hit 15Tb a month they will contact you via phone or email asking is your connection running OK any virus etc etc.

      I mainly use around 8TB a month data via 5G router powering up my local restaurant for 15 pounds a month… Just don’t mention this to 3 your using your connection like a business….
      They will indeed cancel your contract your breaking the T&C…

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