Sort it out Three: Using data abroad feels nothing like at home! [Updated June 18th 2017]

Last modified date

First of all, let me say that I really like Three for everything it has done to shake up the market over the years. And when Feel at Home launched, I was one of the many customers who could save a packet when travelling abroad.

But as someone fortunate enough travel abroad quite a bit, I have to say that my experience of using data as a Three customer when abroad is beginning to annoy me.

[Here comes a long rant, so for the tl;dr brigade: Three is messing with our data when abroad, and I don’t like it – especially if I’m paying for it.]

  • UPDATE: See my follow up article here, and scroll down for the official Three response following the posting of this story.
  • UPDATE 2: JUNE 18TH 2017 – It seems Three might have stopped throttling data for those roaming in the EU, since the new rules came into force to allow all phone users, irrespective of tariff or network, to use their calls, text and data allowances within the EU. Net neutrality laws prevent the throttling or restricting of services and it appears that Three is complying. Fantastic news if true!

Free roaming in a number of countries, extending as far as the USA, Hong Kong, and Australia, is fantastic. It has no doubt saved people a small fortune. To pay no more to make or receive calls, text, or use data is a godsend. Three deserves a great deal of credit for launching it (and 3LikeHome before it).

Even if Feel at Home is not yet available everywhere in Europe, you can still enjoy data access for just £5 a day (midnight to midnight). It’s unlimited too.

So what’s not to like? 

Well, assuming you don’t just want send the odd Tweet, or post the obligatory beach photo on Facebook to wind up your mates in the office back home, using data abroad on Three can be a pretty horrible experience.

Modest expectations

Being the geek that I am, pretty much the first thing I do when stepping off a plane is do some speed testing. Anyone else who does it would be impressed, and quite possibly Tweet how great Feel at Home is.

On my travels this year to France, Sweden, and Germany, I’ve reached speed test results of over 20 megabits on numerous occasions. That’s pretty awesome right? Way more than you probably want or need, whether using your phone for business or pleasure.

Of course that would all be fine if that was the speed you actually got when doing something other than carrying out a speed test.

The problem is Three is throttling data, cutting actual speeds to as little as 0.1 or 0.2 megabits when using it for many things. We’re talking 2G-like speeds here, which is often too slow for some services to work at all.

It’s weird that Three allows speed tests to run at ‘full throttle’, unless it’s to trick people into thinking everything is fine?

Of late a lot of people are starting to notice all is not well when using their phone for more than using social media. While the ratio of people moaning about problems is far smaller than those saying how great it is, Three must be fully aware that many customers aren’t happy and are voicing their concerns on Twitter, Facebook, and forums.

Count me as one of a growing numbers of dissatisfied users.

On a go slow

You see, Facebook might work fine, but do something like download an app on your phone, and the throttling makes it barely usable.

On a short trip to Germany last week, I forgot to install the British Airways app to check in for my flight home. The app isn’t massive (it’s around 24MB), but it took the best part of 10 minutes to download. At times, it looked like it wasn’t even going to finish, and when speeds are that slow you certainly don’t want to be starting over.

That is totally and utterly unacceptable, and not a one off event caused by Google Play having a bad day.

On a holiday in France earlier this year, I had the exact same problem when needing to update some apps, and wanting to download new tracks on Spotify.

Once again, it quickly became clear that I could be waiting hours. It even appeared likely I’d run out of battery before finishing. In the end, the only viable option was to find a Wi-Fi connection.

What to do when waiting for that download to finish?
What to do when waiting for that download to finish?

And what about other things you might want to do when travelling? Okay, so iPlayer and Sky Go are out due to rights issues, but what about YouTube or Netflix? Using either app to search for content is fine, but click to watch anything and you’ll be waiting forever. That’s right, content won’t stream at all.

That’s not fun when your three year old is wanting a fix of Peppa Pig.

Where is that Three says you can’t stream video on Feel at Home, or when you’ve paid £5 for a Euro Internet pass? Where did Three mention you can download files, but only at a speed so slow that you’ll be comparing the experience with the days of dial-up modems?

Is it like home or not?

If Three wishes to restrict access because isn’t charging users in a Feel at Home destination, then say so. But what about if you’ve got the £5 Euro Internet pass?

Vodafone, by comparison, allows unhindered access throughout Europe for £3 a day on its Euro Traveller add-on, and £5 in selected countries further afield on its World Traveller add-on (albeit with a limit of 500MB per day on world traveller, irrespective of your monthly allowance).

More locations are being added at the end of the year, and the network now has over 70 countries where you can enjoy 4G roaming too. Currently Three’s list of countries that offer 4G equals zero. Not that 4G access would make much difference to a Three user being throttled at the moment.

With Vodafone you really can ‘feel at home’ when abroad, even if you have to pay for the privilege in locations where it is free with Three.

Fire up Netflix and it just works (assuming Netflix has a service in that country). YouTube; no problem. Want to download some new apps, music or even video for offline access when flying home? That’s cool too.

Turn on your mobile hotspot and you can even get your laptop or tablet online too (something Three strictly prohibits). All you need to do is keep track of the data usage, as everything you use comes from your standard data allowance.

Feel at Home might serve a certain market, but if you want more then you’re bang out of luck and Three doesn’t offer any sort of add-on to give you ‘full’ access.

It’s not me, it’s you

Ask customer services about the issue, and the response is that it’s down to the foreign network and totally outside of Three’s control. That’s a very plausible explanation, and one most people will likely believe. Indeed, I’m sure some people here will be wondering if I’ve simply been unlucky.

The thing is, throttling is easy to prove.

  1. Speed tests show the actual speed you should be getting (or at least pretty close to getting).
  2. If you invoke the use of certain VPNs, lo and behold, the problems disappear. No more slow downloads, and video streaming now works fine.

So, in other words, no local operator issues.

Earlier this year, Three’s customer support even came out and denied any throttling at all. Sorry, but that’s not true. Many other people have also asked Three about throttling, often with no response.

Is the answer to use a VPN? Well, not really as Three says it can restrict or block them, meaning it’s not guaranteed to work for the long term.

Come on Jackson - make it so data abroad doesn't suck!
Come on Jackson – make it so using data abroad doesn’t suck!

Time to be honest

It’s time for Three to acknowledge its traffic management policy, especially now net neutrality is a hot topic. The fact you can’t enjoy Netflix while in your hotel room, or departure lounge ahead of a flight, or download files without waiting an age, shows Three is quite happy to pick and choose what services it wants you to have access to.

If Three did this in the UK, there would be outrage. It would be all over the media, yet most people probably aren’t even aware of the problem when roaming. Foreign networks are no doubt being blamed every single day by users for the slow speeds that don’t happen at home.

For my future travels abroad, it has to be Vodafone all the way now, even if it means I need to have another pay monthly contract, and pay a daily fee. In my opinion it’s easier to pay £3 (or £5) a day than seek to buy a local SIM card, and then have to mess around with activations, registrations, top-ups and so on.

I’m not going to be leaving Three over this, but only because I have multiple SIM cards and devices for my work. If I travelled frequently with just one phone and SIM, Three wouldn’t look like a very good choice right now.

The clock is now ticking until EU roaming fees are axed completely, which should solve the cost problem, but will it stop networks like Three crippling access to certain services? Will networks even seek to impose even tighter restrictions to further reduce data usage?

What does Three have to say?

I contacted Three last week to ask for a response to this story and I’ve been told a reply will be with me soon. As soon as it arrives, I’ll post it and hopefully it will contain some good news!

  • Please comment on your own experiences with Three when roaming below, and if you have experiences of using mobile data on other networks (e.g. EE, O2, iD Mobile etc) then please share that too (especially if it’s better or worse).

In addition, please share this article with others to raise more awareness and help encourage Three to make it right… (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

UPDATE 1630 Nov 2nd:

Still no official response from Three’s press office, but Three UK Support has Tweeted the following to me in response to my Tweet for this story.

It seems hard to believe the response though, but it’s no different to what people have been told countless times before.

Given a VPN bypasses all the issues, it just can’t be correct unless every foreign networks is messing around with Three’s data traffic without permission (but not for, say, Vodafone) – which would be a whole different story – and arguably an even bigger one…

ThreeUKSupport: Hi Jonathan, I’m sorry to hear that you’re not happy with the data speeds that you’ve received while roaming abroad. I can understand your frustration, but it’s not possible for any mobile company to guarantee a service abroad. We’re reliant on other mobile companies infrastructures and there are so many different variables that affect the speeds that you receive.

UPDATE 1320 Nov 3rd:

Three has now issued the following, implying that everything will work but just slower. I’ve been offered an opportunity to speak to someone to clarify things further.

Three believes it has been transparent with the terms and conditions and requested I post them, which I am happy to do. Feel at Home explained.

Three spokesperson: “Three was the first UK network to allow customers to use their phones abroad at no extra cost, to prevent bill-shock from roaming charges and improve peoples’ holiday experiences. We set out to deliver national coverage for our customers in Feel at Home destinations, so we partnered with foreign operators to achieve that.  Just like using your device in the UK, the network experience will also vary depending on location and time of day as well as which foreign operator a customer is roaming on at a particular time.

We have put a number of steps in place to ensure the majority of customers are able to fully enjoy the most popular services when on holiday abroad on their handset like Facebook, Instagram, Google Maps and web browsing. There are certain usage limits for All You Can Eat customers and personal hotspot is not supported. Customers can use VPN, stream or download large files, but that will be a slower than the UK. This also applies to the Euro Internet Pass services. This is all clearly set out for customers on our website.

We believe we’ve struck the right balance with two million customers now using their phone abroad at no extra cost on Three in the last two years. This has saved those customers £1.3 billion since launch.”


UPDATE: 1633 Nov 3rd:

Another Tweet, which doesn’t make any mention of video/audio streaming or file downloading:

ThreeUK: We have put a number of steps in place to ensure the majority of customers are able to fully enjoy the most popular services when on holiday abroad on their handset like Facebook, Instagram, Google Maps and web browsing. Hopefully that clears things up 🙂

Additional notes: EE now offers a daily add-on for roaming on selected tariffs, where £3 buys a day of data comprising 100MB of full-speed 3G/4G data, followed by 400MB at a slower (unspecified) speed. O2 also offers a feature similar to Vodafone where you can use your data allowance in selected locations from £1.99 per day – but I have not been able to test either at the time of publishing.