Three bets big: 4G coverage will outdo O2 and Vodafone

No concern for Three over 4G, more masts than O2 and Vodafone
Free 4G for all will be fine, apparently

Questions have been raised over Three's 4G roll out, as being the UK's smallest of the big four networks people wonder if it'll be able to cope with the superfast service, with unlimited data tariffs and a free upgrade from 3G to 4G.

TechRadar spoke to Phil Sheppard, responsible for the 4G technical program at Three, who explained that this is not the case.

"We actually have more sites (masts and base stations) than Vodafone and O2. We have 14,000 3G sites in the UK which we'll covert to 4G, and when we last checked Vodafone and O2 were a few thousand behind," explained Sheppard.

"We might only have 10% of mobile customers in the UK, but we account for 43% of all mobile data traffic, so we're used to dealing with large amounts of traffic."

Spectrum speed boost

Three hopes to move 1.5 million customers over to its 4G service in early 2014 as it gradually rolls out to the top 50 biggest towns and cities in the UK, but admits that some users may experience a drop in speed after the initial surge.

"4G speeds will definitely slow [as we add more customers] and that's why we're not really pushing the headlining speed numbers at all.

"We're saying users can expect typical speeds of around 12Mbps, but in practice many people will get a lot more than that. We just don't want to [oversell] speeds," said Sheppard.

Data speeds will pick up as Three adds more spectrum to its existing 1800MHz network. "We have more spectrum coming along in 2015 as a secondary part of our deal with EE, so that will add speed [to the 4G network].

"In the long run, if we get everyone on 4G it's going to be faster on average, as LTE is around 30% more efficient than 3G."

Indoor issues?

Currently Three only has one part of the 1800Mhz spectrum it purchased from EE to launch its 4G service, which could cause issues for rural usage.

"The 1800MHz spectrum used for 4G offers roughly the same coverage as our 3G network which is on 2100MHz," Sheppard told us.

"It's slightly lower so it might be slightly better [at indoor coverage], but at auction we bought some 800MHz, which is better at in-building coverage.

"We not launching with that spectrum, but we will start to deploy it in 2014 and that will add [greater] in-building and rural coverage.

"Currently we struggle with rural areas such as Wales and the South West of England and again the 800MHz will give us that reach and distance."

There's no exact time scale for the rollout, but Three will make quarterly statements throughout 2014 which will detail areas in line for 4G in the following months.

John McCann
Global Managing Editor

John joined TechRadar over a decade ago as Staff Writer for Phones, and over the years has built up a vast knowledge of the tech industry. He's interviewed CEOs from some of the world's biggest tech firms, visited their HQs and has appeared on live TV and radio, including Sky News, BBC News, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, LBC and BBC Radio 4. Originally specializing in phones, tablets and wearables, John is now TechRadar's resident automotive expert, reviewing the latest and greatest EVs and PHEVs on the market. John also looks after the day-to-day running of the site.