Three launches first VoLTE service in UK, but there are limitations

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Three's 800MHz 4G coverage today

Following my news a couple of weeks ago that stated Three would switch on its 800MHz network to launch Voice over LTE (VoLTE) on September 10th (which it did, for Galaxy S5 owners), the network has today confirmed some more details.

However, before everyone gets too excited, there’s still a long way to go to.

Firstly, here’s Three’s official release:

Three UK tackles indoor blackspots with latest network enhancement

In the latest enhancements to its network, Three is introducing a new technology, named 4G Super-Voice.

  • One million customers to benefit from increased indoor and rural coverage by end of year 
  • Up to 5.5 million customers with access to 4G Super-Voice by 2017
  • Three UK first UK operator to launch VoLTE – (4G Super-Voice)

Based on a roll-out of low frequency 800 MHz spectrum it allows a mobile signal to travel much further into buildings and extends its reach to more rural areas, removing many of the current coverage ‘blackspots’ across the country.

Customers will be able to make calls, send texts and get online in places that previously had poor or no signal.

4G Super-Voice is made possible by the addition of the low frequency spectrum to the Three network, that will enable its 4G network to carry voice calls using VoLTE technology as well as texts and data. Three is the first UK operator to launch VoLTE technology.

The combination of both lower and the higher frequency spectrum (1800MHz) which Three currently uses means customers will benefit from the advantages of each, meaning improved indoor coverage, less blackspots and better call connections.

The enhancement is the latest initiative in our drive to improve indoor coverage which includes adding new sites to the network and launching our WiFi calling application, Three InTouch, last year.

4G Super-Voice already covers 50% of the UK population for indoor coverage and more than three quarters of London, Edinburgh, Exeter and Birmingham. This is combined with our 3G network which already offers 98% outdoor UK population coverage.

Three has also begun rolling out the technology in many other towns and cities across the country including Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

By the end of the year it will extend to 65% nationwide, meaning millions of our customers will soon benefit from improved coverage indoors, in rural areas, and on public transport.

By 2017, we expect up to 5.5 million Three customers could have access to 4G Super Voice, subject to device compatibility and take up.

Director of customer strategy, Danny Dixon, said: “Not being able to use your phone as and when you want, no matter where you are, is one of the biggest pain points for customers. Today’s announcement is the latest step in our efforts to offer customers a quality experience on what is already the UK’s most reliable network.”

Bryn Jones, chief technology officer at Three, added: “By the end of the year, one million of our customers will have access to better indoor coverage and be able to use their phones in more places than ever before. We are proud to be the first network to roll this out across the country.”

Customers require a compatible handset to access the new technology which will be available on the Samsung Galaxy S5 at launch. New devices will be added regularly including recent iPhone models later this year.

The customer simply needs to update the software on their compatible device to the latest version to access 4G Super-Voice completely free of charge. When the update is ready for a customer’s handset an alert will be sent, notifying them to update their operating system, by following the on-screen instructions.

First of all, the announcement that 50% of the UK population (theoretically) now has indoor coverage, rising to 65% by the end of the year, proves that Three hasn’t been sitting back doing nothing since the 1800MHz rollout seemed to slow down to a crawl late last year, seeing many towns dropped from the list of places to be covered by the end of 2014.

1800MHz has been expanding throughout the year but at a slower pace because of this work that has been going on ‘behind the scenes’ for the best part of a year to roll out 800MHz, and now it’s live – but don’t break out the champagne just yet.

Chances are your 800MHz compatible phone on Three won’t be working any differently today, or possibly ever.

An awful lot of people as of September 10th now have 800MHz LTE serving them, which will work significantly better indoors, in basements, narrow alleyways etc. But there are many caveats, which I’ll try to explain in simple terms and apologise in advance if I fail to do.

Put simply to begin; Three’s 4G network started with 1800MHz spectrum, sitting alongside its 2100MHz 3G network that it launched back in 2003. Over the years, there have been some roaming agreements on 2G with O2 and Orange, but by and large it’s 3G and 4G only. The high frequencies have caused issues with indoor coverage, and have existed ever since launch.

800MHz can better penetrate walls (in the majority of cases) and so is a big thing for Three. O2 and Vodafone also use 800MHz (O2 exclusively) and EE plans to introduce 800MHz at some point in the future, possibly more for rural areas.

Three's 1800MHz 4G coverage today
Three’s 1800MHz 4G coverage today

Right, so having explained that, I can move on to the first problem with today’s news. You will need a compatible phone with the right settings, because the network set up is such that only ‘whitelisted’ phones will allow access to 800MHz.

What’s more, 800MHz will be the absolute lowest priority. It’s effectively a network to be used only as a last resort – i.e. when you’ve lost all other signal.

What that means is your phone will continue to keep you on 1800MHz 4G first, then drop you to 3G (2100MHz) if the signal falls below a certain level. (Also, with the way things work today, if you drop to 3G while using data, you’ll stay on 3G until you stop transferring data – even if 4G access returns during that time).

Three's 800MHz 4G coverage today
Three’s 800MHz 4G coverage today

Lowest priority

1800MHz 4G operates at a weaker power than it otherwise could, so as not to extend beyond the boundaries of 3G, which in itself can also shrink and expand based on demand (see Cell Breathing).

It’s only when 3G coverage drops to a suitably low level (or entirely), that your phone will even think about registering on 800MHz 4G. It will also seek to get back to 3G and then 1800MHz 4G as quickly as it can.

It’s all down to network settings that can, and may well, be changed by Three in the future – but for which you, the user, has no real control from your handset. At most you might be able to lock to 3G or 4G only, often from hidden menu options only.

For Three to ramp up the power of its existing 4G network, which will bring even more benefits to users, it needs to implement VoLTE on 1800MHz too. That’s not part of today’s announcement, with no VoLTE access at all on the current 4G (1800MHz) network.

It’s confusing, and clearly frustrating for subscribers who have no real reason to know or care about the way things work. They just want to be able to make calls anywhere, and use data.

Lake District
800MHz could really boost rural coverage in addition to indoor black spots

Slow uptake

For the short term few people are going to be able to use 800MHz on Three. The Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G4 supports 800MHz access now, and then a trickle of new handsets will be added over the coming weeks and months, including access for iPhone users. Anyone who has their own, non-Three supplied, S5 or G4 might need to flash new firmware to get up and running too.

Honor 6 Plus users will be left in the cold completely, as the phone doesn’t even support 800MHz in hardware, let alone software. It’s also very bad news for anyone that has bought a phone that Three isn’t selling and directly supporting, of which I’ve talked so much about of late.

There’s a logic to how Three is doing all this though. It’s not Three being dumb or unnecessarily slow, but rather comes down to the fact that anyone that doesn’t have a VoLTE compatible device simply cannot have 4G service if there’s no 3G to fall back on.

This means the current 4G network has to be heavily constrained. Every 4G network in the UK is the same. When it comes to 800MHz on Three, however, the strict control on who can and can’t access it enables the power levels to be set at the highest levels, leading to the incredible transformation of the 4G network on the Three coverage checker if you select a Galaxy S5 or G4 as your device.

It’s quite staggering and shows us what every 4G network could look like if VoLTE removes the need for 2G or 3G to be available in the same areas.

So what about data only?

More and more people these days aren’t really bothered about making calls, and many make calls using IP-based services like Skype. As such, the huge footprint of 800MHz 4G should be ideal for giving data users a decent, consistent, service indoors and out – even if the speeds may be lower.

But if you have a SIM in a device that can make calls and isn’t set up for VoLTE/Super-Voice then you’re simply not going to be allowed access to 800MHz at all.

It’s not clear if you have a mobile broadband SIM, with a tariff that doesn’t offer voice calling at all, whether you’ll be allowed access to 800MHz at some point in the future. This is one thing I hope Three will soon clarify, as anyone using a portable hotspot, USB dongle or a tablet, has no reason to be rejected from using 800MHz and could be benefitting from vastly superior coverage right now.

It also gives Three a further selling point for its mobile broadband plans.

Industry wide problem

VoLTE is bound to be confusing for the average phone user. This is why Three has opted for the ‘Super-Voice’ name, but despite using a more user-friendly term it doesn’t change the fact that the whole way it will be implemented is going to be a real headache.

Rest assured, every UK network still to launch VoLTE will be having the same problems to deal with, simply because there’s not really any other way to do it.

In an ideal world, 4G would have supported voice from day one. But it didn’t, and nobody wanted to wait to launch their next-generation high-speed networks. And there was no sensible decision made on how to deal with the issue, besides developing a fallback to 3G (or 2G) to handle voice telephony.

A better option would have been allowing a phone to report signal independently for 2G/3G and 4G, such that you could have had a signal bar showing you could make or receive calls, and separate meters to show you had a data connection (whether 4G or Wi-Fi).

Then, you could have offered 4G data-only coverage beyond the constraints of existing phone (voice) coverage, instead of artificially cutting people off so they can’t access data anywhere they can’t make an emergency call. In either scenario, you can’t make an emergency call where there’s no 2G or 3G coverage, so what’s the difference?

Step in the right direction

Anyway, that didn’t happen so we are where we are today. A network trying to introduce a feature that arguably is the biggest thing to have happened on Three’s network for years – transforming it into a network that suffered from poor indoor coverage to one that can now ‘smash through walls’.

The problem is there is now a new wall to break through, and that’s down to what handset you’ve got and how you got it.

Perhaps Three is hoping you’ll just get suitably frustrated and just go to a Three store and buy a brand new phone that’s marked as compatible from the off, but there are going to be a lot of customers who won’t want to change phone and will feel let down by the fact that such a big network upgrade is only for a very small percentage of users today, and for some time to come.

EDIT – 18/09/15: Member mupet0000 on Digital Spy has created an excellent FAQ on the subject which you can read below, as it was written on September 18th. Check here to view the original with further updates or corrections.

I have a phone that supports 800MHz+VoLTE, will it work on Super-Voice?
The internal list of supported phones is here. All of those dates are subject to change. Your phone MUST be running Three software. If you bought it from another network and unlocked it, or you bought it unbranded, it will not work unless you flash Three’s ROM onto it OR you have an iPhone.

Why won’t it work if it’s not running Three software? Why does the iPhone work?
There is no way for Three to add the VoLTE settings into your device without a software update. If it’s not running Three software, they cannot push an update to your device, it can’t get the VoLTE configuration, it won’t work. This is a limitation of Android and possibly also Windows Phone, but not of iPhones. iPhones work in such a way that Apple is in control of software updates, Three submit the VoLTE configuration to Apple and then Apple pushes it as a carrier update to all iPhones regardless of where they were purchased.

I don’t care about VoLTE I just want to use 800MHz.
You can’t use 800MHz without VoLTE. If you could, you may be in a situation where you would have signal but not be able to place a phone call, this would cause all sorts of chaos for Three in terms of customer complaints from people who don’t understand, so Three made the decision to only allow VoLTE+800MHz or nothing.

I have a Tablet/MiFi that supports 800MHz, can I use it?
According to Three, you should be able to as you can’t place phone calls on these devices there’s no reason to block them. I’ve seen posts of this not working though, I’d contact Three about that as it should work.

What about the Nexus 6?
For some odd reason, the Nexus 6 is able to access 800MHz but not use VoLTE. This is very much an exception to the rule. It is not on Three’s list, and Three don’t sell the phone. It might be a possibility for Google to update the Nexus 6 ROM to add Three VoLTE support as they have done in the USA with carriers but don’t get your hopes up. As for why it can access 800MHz, no one knows why, it shouldn’t be able to according to Three. I wouldn’t count on it continuing to work forever. Whenever I get on 800MHz now with my Nexus 6 I’m kicked off pretty promptly anyway.

How do I check device support and 800 coverage?
On the Three coverage checker, enter your postcode and in the box below enter your device. You will be shown the coverage for your area and device. If you want to double check that Super-Voice is in your area, enter the Galaxy S5 as your device and it will show Super-Voice coverage if available. If your device doesn’t show Super-Voice coverage but the S5 does, your device isn’t currently compatible. If your device does show Super-Voice coverage but it doesn’t work, you need to be running Three branded software. The coverage checker is always updating so keep an eye out.

Does VoLTE work over 1800MHz
No, not currently. You must be on 800MHz to use VoLTE.

Has 1800MHz power been increased since the launch of 800MHz
No, as it’s the same situation as before. If the power was increased you could potentially be in a situation where you cannot place phone calls.

What about *devicename*, I can’t find any information about it?
If it’s running Three software & supports 800MHz+VoLTE I don’t see why it wouldn’t be made compatible eventually. GSM Arena is a good website to check if it supports 800MHz, you’re looking for Band 20 support. VoLTE support is harder to find out about, but in general I’d say most devices from the last year are good to go, you can also Google your devicename + volte and see if it has support in other countries. If it’s not running Three software and you can’t make it run Three software, it’s not compatible.