Three UK: So what’s the real deal with the 4G roll-out?

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A couple of weeks ago, I was quite vocal on Twitter about my disappointment over the supposed December launch of 4G for Three customers.

For much of the year, it’s been a case of counting down the days until getting the final switch-on date sometime during the month.

Would it be the 3rd (for Three?) or maybe the 4th (for 4G)? Would it be Christmas Day (a good choice to say Happy Christmas to customers getting 4G for no extra cost, but one that would have engineers running around in a state of panic at the thought).

Well, I found out this week that the planned date was actually the 4th. Problem is, Three was swamped with requests for info from the first day of the month and took the decision to announce two days earlier, in a fashion that left a few people like me upset.

You see, it’s obvious that every phone network around the world will do testing. It’s normal and expected. It’s vital in fact. So when Three suddenly said that only 2,800 people would be using 4G in December, with everyone else getting it before the end of Q1, a lot of people felt conned. Why would you announce what’s effectively a month long trial for hardly anyone?

Three’s blog and its main website quickly got text added to explain that it was a gradual roll-out, which most people would have accepted as being true. 4G wasn’t coming to the whole of the UK on day one after all. Yet the text now implied that the use of ‘roll-out’ was actually referring not only to 4G enablement, but also those who could use it.

All those testing in December will continue to do so until mid January, which is when everyone else can get a sniff of 4G for themselves.

The only good thing for Three is that, thanks to unlimited data, the £15 One Plan, free roaming abroad with Feel at Home, nobody moaning was ever talking of ditching their account and moving elsewhere. Not something that can be said very often for a lot of companies that upset their customers.

Clarification over coffee

Earlier this week, following my moans, I was invited to meet up with Three and chat about the whole saga in a friendly, informal way. There was an admission that things didn’t quite turn out as planned, as nobody had expected so much demand for 4G from the customers.

I offered the suggestion that with the other networks having worked so hard to hype up 4G in the run up to Christmas, to justify new contracts and higher tariffs, it was perhaps not surprising that people now think 4G is something they absolutely must have now – even if a Three user is currently able to enjoy speeds of up to 43 megabits over 3G on 90% of its network.

My other question was about exactly how the roll-out will work, and what the quoted 1.5 million subscribers able to use 4G from mid January really means. Rumours in early December suggested Three will be activating people based on their post code (if in a 4G covered area, this will mean being enabled earlier than someone outside).

That, it seems, is not true and of many misunderstandings that weren’t helped by Three having been rather vague throughout.

In fact, it’s rather more simple than that. 1.5 million customers is the number of Three customers who have bought or brought over a 4G ready handset during the year – and that will have likely grown by a bit in the final push for Christmas.

These will be the people that can use 4G, coverage permitting, when they receive a SIM update that will provision the SIM on the network. Not to be confused by the carrier update that Apple rolled out recently, enabling the 4G menu on the iPhone and iPad.

Big numbers

What this means for Three is a serious amount of bragging rights. As the last network to enter the world of 4G, it will be able to boast over 1.5 million 4G users within a matter of weeks of launching. Impressive stuff, even if the limited coverage will leave a lot of people making do with 3G for a while.

Perhaps this explains why Three CEO Dave Dyson felt brave enough to attack EE’s launch this week, which took nearly a year to reach a similar number of 4G users. Dyson attributed this to confusing tariffs, which I can’t exactly disagree with. EE has built an extremely good 4G network and is upgrading its legacy sites at a rate of knots, converting 2G-only sites to both 3G and 4G – but its tariffs are definitely rather too complex for many, especially now you have normal and double-speed offerings to consider too.

Better news is that the upgrading of Three’s 4G network is progressing at a very fast pace, with the coverage map already looking a lot stronger after less than three weeks. The network aims to keep its online coverage checker updated regularly, so users will be able to see how it’s spreading out from all of the initial cities, as well as new cities and towns during 2014.

Here’s Three’s London coverage on December 4th 2013:

4th December 2013
4th December 2013

And here it is on December 20th:

20th December 2013
20th December 2013

Hopefully by the time people are switched on, 4G this will have grown considerably more. It certainly needs to, as it represents the weakest level of coverage from any of the operators at launch.

Capacity vs Speed

Three is quite rightly proud of its existing 3G network, and carrying more data than anyone else. To Three, 4G merely offers users another way to connect. Of course it should be a bit faster too, especially when it comes to the uplink speed, but Three already has high speeds that enable customers to do everything that can be done over 4G anyway.

It has instead talked up all-you-can-eat data, making people feel comfortable to just use data as much as they want, however they want. Speed helps, but not everyone is like me and doing a speed test every few minutes to try and achieve a new record. My best is just short of 27Mbps by the way, but more impressive is the fact that I rarely get below 4-5Mbps anywhere.

LTE is more efficient, and this means Three is actually hoping that it will help alleviate pressure on 3G as a result. So, 3G will remain as a very valuable, and possibly even faster, ‘fallback’ for many years to come.

800MHz will also be another way to improve data in built-up areas, allowing better indoor penetration and usage in sub-surface locations. Three intends to use 800MHz in London and other big towns and cities, not just rural areas that seems to be favoured by rivals for now.

Presumably the introduction of Voice over LTE will be vital here too, as Three could risk users having a great 4G connection – fine for data – indoors, but with no 3G to make or receive calls.

Never work with animals, children – or near Oxford Street

Before we finished, it seemed only fair to try and do a short test of 4G while I had the chance. Unfortunately, Three probably wish I hadn’t. Actually, I wish I hadn’t too.

First up was my own phone, a Nexus 5. After a few tests, my best score (on 3G) was 0.5Mbps – and with a high ping of 720ms. Not good.

Hoping to see how 4G would make 3G look like dial-up, I was then able to do the same test on an LG G2. Lower ping time, but still nothing over 4Mbps. That was even worse, relatively speaking.

I was however happy to accept that doing a test near Oxford Street a week before Christmas was probably going to make any network struggle.

My plan is of course to do some more varied tests of 4G over the coming months to check that this wasn’t a sign of things to come, and simply one of the many things the Three engineers will be working overtime throughout Christmas and the new year to fix.

What I can say is that I’m not so worried about having to wait now, and nor should you. It seems that Three has got a very well organised plan after all.