Three's 3G switch-off really is the end of an era

(Image credit: Three)

Few in the UK will miss 3G era. It began with a spectrum auction at the turn of the millennium that had lasting ramifications for the mobile industry. Intense competition for airwaves that promised to ‘revolutionise’ telecommunications led to operators splashing out an astonishing £22 billion on licences.

But as difficult as it is to believe in 2022, the mobile phone was not entrenched in everyday life as it is today. 

An absence of ‘killer’ 3G applications and devices stifled consumer demand, while the huge cost of licences had saddled operators with huge amounts of debt that constrained their ability to invest in infrastructure.

Three 3G switch off

Meanwhile there was no guarantee that consumers and businesses would be willing to pay a premium for additional content or services. 

BT Cellnet, One2One, Orange, and Vodafone all delayed the launch of their networks and by the time smartphones arrived in their modern guise with the iPhone in 2007, it became apparent that 3G networks lacked the capacity and speeds required for emerging use cases.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that many of the opportunities that operators thought 3G would bring were seized by over-the-top (OTT) service providers that have also eroded traditional revenues like voice and text.

BT Cellnet was spun off as O2 and bought by Telefonica in 2005, One2One became T-Mobile and merged with Orange in 2009 to become Everything Everywhere (EE), which launched the first 4G service in 2012. Finally, with LTE, mobile operators could fulfil the promise of mobile broadband and put the challenges of a troubled era behind them.  

But there is one operator that has a lot more sentiment for 3G. In that infamous auction, there was a fifth player – Three. Unlike the others, Three was a new entrant that didn’t have a 2G network to fall back on. Indeed, in the early years it had a 2G roaming agreement to ensure it could offer nationwide coverage.

It was entering the 3G era with optimism and a hope that a network built for mobile data could disrupt a market that had already been around for two decades. It was the first to launch a commercial 3G service in the UK, going live on the 3rd March 2003 (3/3/2003), and was the first to meet its 80% population coverage in late 2004.

It did much to drive awareness of mobile broadband’s capabilities, such as the ability to watch goals from the Premier League, and even launched devices with Skype as a native application. Many of these use cases were made redundant by smartphone app stores and widespread support for Wi-Fi in later devices, but they offered a glimpse of the future.


(Image credit: Three)

Even as the industry transitioned to 4G, Three pushed the boundaries of what was possible with 3G, rolling out the latest technology to improve speeds and its customers consumed more data than those of any other network. It didn't need to be first with 4G, it argued, because its 3G network was so good. 

But by the end of 2024, Three’s 3G network will no longer be operational. The spectrum and engineering resources will be reallocated to 4G and 5G services that the majority of its customers now use.

Three wasn’t the first operator to announce its sunset plans, both EE and Vodafone had already committed to doing so, but it will be the most significant. As its name suggests, no other mobile operator is as tied to the 3G era as Three is. While others will have their 2G services an ultimate backup, Three is going headfirst into the 4G and 5G era.

The modern Three may not be as disruptive as it was in the early 2000s (the end of its inclusive roaming offer would indicate so), and recent reports suggest that a takeover or a joint-venture could be in its near future. 

But the company, and its 3G network, has a special place in the history of the UK mobile industry.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.