Three plan to speed up UK broadband with ultrafast mobile network

2 May 2017   By Samantha Smith

THREE UK are planning to make an ultrafast wireless broadband network available in 40% of British cities by 2020, according to senior figures within the company.

three shop sign
Credit: William Barton/

As reported in the Daily Telegraph, Three will make use of the spectrum they'll be acquiring with their soon-to-be-approved takeover of UK Broadband, who currently operate the Relish wireless network in and around London.

They'll be offering the public ultrafast speeds, and while they'll be using wireless technology and mobile masts, it's understood that their focus will be on offering potentially gigabit speeds to home customers.

This will have positive and negative implications if successful. On the one hand, it will force Three's rivals to speed up the deployment of their own ultrafast networks, yet on the other, a move to wireless may decrease the overall reliability of home broadband.

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According to senior inside sources, Three aim to cover 40% of the UK's cities with ultrafast wireless broadband, and they aim to reach this milestone within three years.

They will be helped in their plans by their February acquisition of UK Broadband, whose spectrum now enables them to transmit faster broadband speeds, in conjunction with their own telephone masts.

And as far as recent global trials of the technology Three are expected to use go, if these plans do come to fruition, customers will be having speeds of up to 1Gb beamed at them.

The naysayers may sneer at this hope, but if Three's strategy works, it will provide an ingenious shortcut to stimulating the ultrafast broadband market.

So far, this market has arguably seen inadequate investment from reluctant and sheepish providers engaged in a kind of Mexican stand off with each other. For example, BT have been hesitant to take significant leaps into "full fibre" ultrafast connections, choosing instead to roll out technology that will merely boost the existing copper fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) network used by most providers.

However, if Three do come out with the ultrafast mobile broadband network in 2020, then providers such as BT may be commercially pressured into launching truly ultrafast connections of their own, instead of limiting fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband to only two million premises.

As such, it could have the wider effect of increasing the overall quality of British broadband, making customers more familiar with and more expectant of ultrafast speeds.

Possible weaknesses

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That said, wireless broadband has several weaknesses compared to normal fixed-line broadband, and these may become more evident if and when Three make their plans a reality.

To begin with, mobile broadband is more vulnerable to latency issues than fixed broadband, meaning that distance from the source of the signal causes lag, which may affect the experience of online gamers and people speaking via such apps as Skype.

Secondly, mobile broadband deals are much more likely to come with caps on data, restricting what customers can view and how much they can download each month.

And as Three have shown in the past with their 3G network, they often require traffic management, at least when subjected to the kind of heavy use required by home users.

Of course, these drawbacks may not necessarily affect Three's wireless network whenever it arrives. However, they suggest that the trade-off of getting ultrafast broadband sooner may be that the service actually delivered ends up being a little less reliable than what would come from a fixed FTTP connection.

And if Three's move into wireless home broadband has the effect of causing other providers to do the same, then any industry shift from fixed-line to wireless broadband could potentially affect the overall nature and reliability of the internet service customers generally receive in the UK.

Slower speeds and less reliability?

Most of all, it would have an effect on speeds, since in speaking with various internet analysts and consultants, we were informed that Three may struggle to deliver the kind of ultrafast service they're reported to be promising.

We were told by Kamalini Ganguly, Senior Analyst at Ovum, that "without backhauling to a fixed network quite close to the customer, gigabit speeds (or close) are really not possible for wireless technologies at this time and in the near future, except over very short distances".

Indicating that there would be a loss of speed the further away from a mast the customer was, she went on, adding, "Often the reference to gigabit speeds for wireless technologies really means gigabit at the cell tower, not what the individual customer gets".

However, while wireless broadband may be at a disadvantage when it comes to bits per second, others are more optimistic that it can be just as reliable as fixed-line broadband.

This is what was affirmed by mobile communications specialists InterDigital, whose Patrick Van de Wille said, "Our sense is that fixed wireless broadband, from a technology standpoint, can be just as reliable as traditional coaxial or fibre broadband, and offer much more flexibility".

And as Van de Wille also pointed out to us, having one more ultrafast network (in addition to those provided in various forms by Hyperoptic, Virgin Media and Gigaclear) can only be a good thing for UK broadband, since it will offer more choice and competition.

As such, it's ultimately hoped that Three UK will pull through with their plans and actually deliver ultrafast speeds by 2020, since it would indirectly accelerate the speeds everyone in the country receives.

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