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

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.

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

  1. It’s 14th October 2015 now and THREE still hasn’t honoured and isn’t going to honour it’s promise for 4G in Herne Bay (and many other places) ever!
    In 2013 we were on the list for the roll out in 2014, waited and waited, asked and asked.
    2014 ends and low and behold the list for roll out in 2015 doesn’t contain Herne Bay!!!!
    I did recognise a few places that were still on the 2015 list that were promised for 2014 but we aren’t even on it!

    I’m a single consumer but people like OFCOM SHOULD be making these companies honour their promises.

  2. Its all rhubarb!! We get conned all the way in and out…. Far too many lies over 3s launch of being august 2013… I was sold the crappy S4 on the hearsay of 3s reps that it would happen then…………. Don’t believe what you hear and what is written.. Simple.. Like I don’t believe what you think you have learned!!!….. We are all conned by big boll–x Business ………….

  3. Reblogged this on technoratia and commented:
    One of my fellow bloggers had an opportunity to meet with Three UK and review their 4G service that is in the process of being released into the UK. Here is what he found, presented in a very interesting article.

  4. It is good to know that all 4G-capable devices and SIMs will be enabled such that we can “enjoy” 4G as and when we enter a cell where it is available. That is fairly typical of Three’s “No faff” approach over the past few years. And for that I think we should be appreciative.

    For sure, there was disappointment at Three’s apparent change in launch approach. We had anticipated an opening of the flood-gates as is now expected to happen in 2014. But the reality is that 3G performance is generally good enough for most everyone. 4G remains a bit of a novelty right now, in its first year of UK deployment. While at the corporate level Three will be trying to score some bonus points against the other network providers, and I do think that they reasonably will. Last out of the gate with 1.5 customers capable of actually using 4G where it is available is quite an achievement for essentially day one of their full release.

    But of course, lots of folk will be watching the impact, if any, to the incumbent 3G services. Will they suffer? Some suggest that they will, but I do think we’ll have to wait and see. Because it is almost evident that the other networks have suffered the same – where 2G and 3G services are heavily impacted by the release of 4G in a particular area. My view is that is being caused by corner-cutting by the incumbent operators to keep their costs low (shareholder value and all that) by ravaging existing infrastructure to support the new technology. All a bit smoke and mirrors if you ask me. Three, I fancy, are not in that same position and the reality will be quite different.

    Roll on 2014 then.

    1. Both will be enabled, but Three isn’t counting it as part of the ‘1.5m’ which is merely the counting of users it knows as using a 4G device.

      In other words, by the end of Q1, all 8/9 million people will be able to use 4G if they have their SIM in a 4G device and go to an area covered by 4G.

      Really, the 1.5m figure is the thing that was the most misleading and confusing all along. It only matters to Three to try and score points as having more 4G customers than the other networks.

  5. “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.”
    The issue for me – other than the disappointment of feeling conned about the launch of 4G – is that the speeds you achieved on 3G “near Oxford Street a week before Christmas” are the top speeds I now get in my home postcode, where we used to get the same speeds you got in your 4G test. Not to mention the 4 days of “No Signal” in the last 2 weeks. If I was getting 4Mbs for data transfer I would be reasonably happy! And this is in an area of London Zone 2 which according to the coverage map has very good 3G coverage (Indoor & Outdoor) and excellent predicted 4G.
    So for some of us the promise of an early christmas present of 4G wasn’t just about a minor bump in speed capability, but a return to the excellent network we used to have, we pay for, and loved!
    Thanks for the article though – would have been nice for ThreeUK to make some of these clarifications themselves through their official support channels.


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