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Three UK Moot Ultrafast Fixed Wireless Broadband for 40% of Population

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017 (8:15 am) - Score 9,990

Sources close to mobile operator Three UK are reported to have hinted that the provider is planning to compete with fixed line home broadband services by using their recent £250m acquisition of UK Broadband Ltd (here) to power an ultrafast fixed wireless network, covering 40% of people in UK cities.

Avid readers will know that UKB had long planned to launch a national service via their primary 3.5GHz to 3.6GHz spectrum bands (they also own a bit of spectrum in the 3.9GHz, 28GHz and 40GHz bands), although so far they’ve only succeeded in launching an ‘up to’ 40Mbps capable product via their ISP Relish Wireless by harnessing 4G (LTE) technology around parts of central London, Swindon and Reading.

Relish’s network has also been far from perfect and initially suffered from a lot of disconnection problems. On top of that they’ve struggled to deliver on their advertised service speeds. As such it was generally thought that Three UK’s move to gobble UKB was more about securing extra spectrum for future 4G and 5G based Mobile connectivity than fixed wireless.

However a new report in The Telegraph claims that Three UK is currently mulling a fresh investment that, over the next 3 years, could see UKB’s spectrum being used to deploy an “ultrafast wireless broadband” network to cover 40% of the UK population (mostly city dwellers), which sounds a lot like UKB’s original ambition except that Three UK would be able to use their existing mobile masts to give it a serious boost.

On the other hand this idea doesn’t sound like it’s a million miles from the expected benefits of future 5G based services, which are due to surface from 2020 onwards and will blur the lines between the capabilities and features of traditional ‘Mobile’ (aimed more at a high-mobility / handset environment) and ‘Fixed Wireless’ (aimed more at data hungry / higher speed fixed location home and business users) approaches.

Some operators, such as EE and Three UK, have both played around with using ordinary 4G Mobile as a “Home Broadband” service but those attempts often fell short due to the application of heavy Traffic Management, CGNAT, variable speeds and tightly capped usage allowances. As a result any serious foray into the fixed wireless market would thus have to deliver flexible “unlimited usage” and be able to supply ultrafast speeds to all those who sign-up, which would require Three UK to deliver a significant capacity and infrastructure upgrade (all operators will need to do this for 5G anyway).

At the same time Three UK’s focus on urban areas might run into a challenge from Virgin Media, Openreach (BT) and other fixed line network providers. Virgin already has a 300Mbps+ capable hybrid fibre cable network in those same areas and Openreach are about to start a commercial G.fast roll-out that can deliver similar speeds to many of the same premises, although the latter will take a few years to deploy.

So at the very least Three UK would need to offer something more attractive than both of the above services, which in the short term seems like quite a tall order. On the other hand a number of reports have predicted that future 5G services could be a game changer and one that may eventually make Mobile Broadband more important than Fixed Line Broadband (here and here) for even home users.

However for now 5G, which remains firmly in the pre-standards Research & Development phase, is still more hype than reality and it will have a lot to prove once the first commercial roll-outs begin in 2020. Never the less we wouldn’t be surprised to see Three UK launch a 4G or 5G based fixed wireless style product using UKB’s spectrum but equally rival operators may well do the same.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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10 Responses
  1. New_Londoner says:

    As the article notes, the experience of Relish in an urban environment suggests that competing with superfast, let alone ultrafast, broadband is a real challenge. It seems capable of delivering a reasonable ADSL competitor, but its current average speeds fall a long way short of its stated ambition. Whether mobile mast sites help at all remains to be seen – I doubt macro sites would make any difference.

  2. Web Dude says:

    I’m not sure that ultrafast or even superfast are ‘essentials’ but being able to have service the same day (or within a few days) with just a box arriving by post/ courier, and no Openreach or Virgin engineer to install anything could prove a “plus” for those who live on their mobiles, late teens and twenties (students and newly employed graduates) for whom ‘cord cutting’ doesn’t apply as only their family home had a cord at all.

    Just being a ‘fast enough’, ‘cheap enough’, month-to-month contract, ADSL competitor may be quite adequate for many who may live in a flat and have a better than average signal from some Three mast, and be more convenient than having a 12 or 18 month contract, especially if they pack up and move to some other flat every 6 months.

  3. Bob says:

    This is disgraceful… 3’s infrastructure build division should be separated from their retail arm to motivate them to deploy in rural locations. While were at it, 3’s should be forced to wholesale their infrastructure to other mobile providers at lower and lower costs each year.

    Those two actions will be sure to make 3 deploy in rural areas.

    1. Chris P says:

      Hey Bob,
      you realise OFCOM may read your comment and take you seriously, after all it fits exactly in their current model!!

      In all seriousness Three are just getting ahead of the curve. It will be interesting to see how their plans progress & what bandwidths customers get.

      i have three 4G on my iphone 6 and virgin 70mbs at home. I get ~70mbs down and upto ~50mbs up on Three at peak times when i’m lucky to get 10mbs down and 5 up on my Virgin connection, latency is sometimes better on 3 too. If the price is right i’d ditch Virgin and go with 3 full time for BB.

    2. MikeHunt says:

      Ah so you want to use tyranny to impose your will on them? Ugly bob…

  4. MikeW says:

    Shocking. Ofcom wanted a telco to come in and put fibre in the ground for 40%. How dare 3 try to undermine that with wireless?

    Or are 3 exacting revenge for being denied the O2 merger?

  5. DTMark says:

    Although I haven’t tried it recently, Three’s 3G was upgraded to 4G here, but seemingly with no more backhaul so the performance was identical. About 6 to 12 Meg down.

    Though I can see no reason why that can’t be marketed as superfast broadband if some percentage of people within a mile or two can get superfast speeds for some percentage of the time, it’s just like any other wired delivery mechanism with no lower bound of performance.

    What’s needed here is advertising based on the achievable and not the theoretical, the “headline” nor the “average”.

    Having the reassurance of an alternate network (to fixed line) is highly valuable so I hope Three go ahead.

    Dot a few 30 Meg capable cells in a few places and OFCOM’s superfast availability numbers can fly.

  6. peter mccoy says:

    3 are rubbish at anything they do so I wouldnt hold my breath customers are not thier priority at all or giving good service once they have a customer thats it forget about it.pmccoy638@gmail.com

  7. Alloneword says:

    I have Three on my mobile and apart from poor service out of London i find no issue with it and just doing a speedtest on my phone get 17 down and 20 up and that is at 17.40.
    I live in a part of london that gets on average about 2mbits and i reckon i could hit canary wharf with a marble and a catapult, in another words not far away and yes i have done all i can to get best speeds and that is 3.5, if i punch my postcode into the relsih checker it says i cannot get their service and this is true when using their pile of s**t Gemtek router, it’s not even fit for a doorstop, i have half decent line of sight (for now, until tree’s grow leaves) to relish’s mast on the isle of dogs and using an external antenna and a non standard Huawei B222s router am able to get a decent signal and most of the time can get 20 down except between 5pm and 11pm, before i signed up to relish i spoke to a few people round that way and most people did get tons of drop outs and nobody had gone to the trouble i spoke of getting their own router main reason i suspect being cost at the time it was best part of £250 for the hardware, but i have only had 2 dropouts in 4 months so IMO if they could sort the hardware they may get more luck and i know they have struck a new deal with another supplier but don’t know much about it, just because we live in a big city it does not mean we have fast BB in fact the people of the highlands and islands of scotland have better speeds then us lot round here.
    Relish could work if investment is there and local councils support it but that may be less of an issue as current masts may be able to be used, a major plus is dumping the damm BT line rental as well, most people use it only for BB, but with relsih setup you can get rid of that and offset the cost of your relsih account costing you almost nothing for a half decent speed and IMO if it’s just man and woman in home i think 20mbit is enough, sure if you have kids running stuff of the line then you may want more.

    Just my 2ps worth

  8. MikeHunt says:

    I use Three’s 4G via a 4G router + dual antenna, get around 20-30Mbps down and 20Mbps up 24/7, it’s more stable than my crappy DSL (and obviously a lot faster), my only complaint would be the latency (~50ms) is still too high for playing on foreign game servers, first world problems…when fibre eventually comes I will miss the upload speed though.

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