November 14, 2012

Three 4G Launch Examined

Three don’t seem as concerned about their 4G launch as maybe Vodafone or O2 do at the current time. With the 4G auction of the 4G frequency spectrum ending sometime in March 2013, the earliest we foresee Three launching its 4G network is sometime after May 2013 but realistically it may come months later.

Looking back, recall that Three bought some 4G frequency spectrum from EE ( which owns Orange and T-Mobile ) in the 1800MHz frequency band. This is the 4G frequency band that EE recently launched its 4GEE mobile network, 4G phones and 4G tablets. The 1800MHz 4G spectrum was bought in September for less than the predicted £425 million pounds and covers two chunks of 4G frequency of 20MHz and 10MHz.

Unfortunately for Three, the 4G frequency can’t actually be used to launch 4G at the present time. In fact, Three has to wait until October, 2013 to use the 20Mhz slice of 4G frequency and until October 2015 to use the 10Mhz slice of 4G frequency.

For Three to be able to launch 4G in May 2012, Three would need to secure additional 4G frequency spectrum, via the 4G auction managed by Ofcom, in either the 800MHz or 2.6GHz frequency bands. have heard nothing about this to-date.

While Vodafone, O2 and Three wait and prepare for their own 4G launches we here at 4G note the varying ways in which the companies are tackling this. Vodafone and O2 have decided to offer a 4G Price Promise ( see Vodafone’s 4G Price Promise details here ) see O2’s 4G Price Promise details here ). Basically, these are discount offers for anyone buying a non 4G phone on Vodafone or O2 which is currently available on EE as a 4G phone and the discount then limits the cost of an upgrade to a 4G phone on Vodafone or O2.

Three’s 4G Launch tactics seem a shade different. In fact, to us it seems that the Three’s 4G launch could well be later than Vodafone’s and O2’s as reflected by their current tactics.

These tactics evolve around Three raising a new term “ultrafast internet” which obviously goes head to head with EE’s term “superfast 4GEE”. Three has classed “ultrafast internet” as one of two technologies. These are 4G LTE ( 4G ) and DC-HSDPA ( beefed-up 3G ). DC-HSDPA stands for Dual Carrier High Speed Downlink Packet Access and is the latest and fastest upgrade to 3G mobile technology.

Looking at the graph above, produced by research firm Enders Analysis, Three’s latest 3G network upgrade ( DC-HSDPA ) looks much faster than other 3G networks.

A couple of points spring to mind in looking at Three’s “ultrafast internet” network powered by DC-HSDPA. Firstly, this network upgrade commenced back in April / May when trials began, and will only cover 50% of the UK’s population by the time we enter 2013. Secondly, you can not benefit from DC-HSDPA speeds on any old mobile phone or tablet – they have to be DC-HSDPA enabled ( one key change is that a DC-HSDPA device needs to have 2 aerials inside the phone or tablet to receive the dual channel signals ). In fact there are currently only 3 devices in the Three portfolio which will work with DC-HSDPA. These are the iPhone 5, the new iPad and the Sony Xperia T.

Surprisingly, even though Three is the smallest of the four main mobile operators ( EE, O2, Vodafone and Three ) they handle 43% of the UK’s mobile internet traffic. The figures are Three = 43%, EE = 24%, O2 = 17% and Vodafone = 16%.

Back to Three’s 4G launch now. Three appointed its main 4G network supplier as recently as September this year. The network contract won by Samsung covers the supply and installation of a 4G LTE Radio Access Network (RAN) and 3G / 4G LTE core infrastructure i.e. a 4G LTE mobile phone network.

This seems very late to us here at to achieve a May 2013 4G launch ( even on a regional basis only ). Another point we consider worthy of mention, is that this will be Samsung’s first 4G network installation in Europe and this could lead to additional slippage as Samsung encounter new problems possibly not encountered before.

Our thoughts here at lead us to summarise ( as we have heard nothing officially from Three themselves ) that Three may bid in the 4G auction and possibly bid for the more favoured 800MHz bandwidth and that Three will launch its 4G network sometime between May 2013 and October 2013. We would not be surprised if Three’s 4G launch is some months behind both Vodafone’s and O2’s yet this is pure speculation.