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Three UK Start L-Band Rollout and Recycle 3G Spectrum to 4G

Thursday, September 19th, 2019 (10:09 am) - Score 20,584

Mobile operator Three UK has today pledged that existing customers can expect “performance improvements” (i.e. faster mobile broadband speeds) of up to 150% as part of a major upgrade, which will see them both rollout L-Band (1.4GHz) technology to boost 4G and switch some of their 3G spectrum to 4G.

The operator first talked about their “plan” for a “nationwide” rollout of L-Band technology in August (here), which they said would “lead to further substantial speed and coverage improvements.” This is a reference to the 20MHz slice of the 1.4GHz band (1452-1492MHz) that they and Vodafone scooped up all the way back in August 2015 (here).

Back in 2015 the 1.4GHz band wasn’t widely used for Mobile Broadband connectivity and as such it has taken quite a long time to develop a solution for its commercial deployment, although Three UK says that today around 1.82 million of customers are using a compatible device (e.g. many high and mid-range Smartphones built over the past 2-3 years can support it).

The new upgrade programme is expected to run until 2023, which will be conducted in tandem with their 5G rollout that went live in Central London in August.

The Upgrade Plan

New spectrum and antennas – 6,000 sites carrying 80% of our traffic will be upgraded with new antennas and new spectrum (1400MHz or “L-Band”) meaning speed improvements of up to 150% for customers with compatible handsets. Customers without a compatible handset will also see speeds improve by about 50%.

Recycling our 3G spectrum – 12,500 sites will see speed improvements of up to 40% as we switch some of our 3G spectrum over to 4G.

The upgrades have already started in Three UK’s busiest urban network areas, so customers should start to see the benefits by the end of the year. Some 3,960 sites have also already benefited from a 15% improvement in performance thanks to the deployment of LTE-Advanced Carrier Aggregation technology (often shown as a 4G+ icon on phones), which is something that EE and Vodafone have been deploying for a long time.

David Dyson, CEO at Three UK, said:

“5G is a game changer for Three’s current and future customers. It will bring faster speeds, a better experience and masses of capacity which will benefit our 4G customers as well. While we are investing heavily in 5G, 4G is still very important for our mobile and home broadband services.

These upgrades will ensure that our data hungry customers are getting the best possible 4G experience as 5G rolls out.”

Speaking of being data hungry, Three UK said they’ve just become the first UK operator to smash through the 10GB monthly data usage barrier per customer. Data usage in July 2019 was a whopping 10.4GB per month versus the UK average of 2.9GB (Ofcom data).

L-Band Supporting Phones

Apple: iPhone XR, iPhone XR CDMA, iPhone XR China (Dual SIM), iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XS CDMA, iPhone XS China (Single SIM), iPhone XS Max CDMA, iPhone XS Max China (Dual SIM), iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max

HTC: M10, Pixel, Pixel XL, U

Google: Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 3a, Pixel 3a XL, Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL

Huawei: Mate 10 Pro, Mate 20 Pro, Mate 20 X, Mate 20 X 5G, P20 Pro, P30, P30 Pro, Huawei B525, Huawei B535, Huawei AI Cube

LG: G7 ThinQ, V30

OnePlus: Six, Six T, Seven, Seven Pro, Seven T, Seven T Pro
Oppo: Find X, RX17 Pro

RIM: Krypton, KeyOne 2

Samsung: Galaxy S8, Galaxy S8+, Galaxy S9, Galaxy S9+, Galaxy S10, Galaxy S10+, Galaxy S10e, Galaxy S10 5G, Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy Note 9, Galaxy Note 10, Galaxy Note 10 5G

Sony: Xperia XZ, Xperia XZ Premium, Xperia XZ1, Xperia XZ1 Compact, Xperia XZ2, Xperia XZ3, Xperia XZ4 (PF43), Xperia 1, Xperia 10

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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.
Leave a Comment
30 Responses
  1. Ken Bower says:

    I have 4G broadband and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done far better than talktalk ever provided me with I got the huawei cube its 5G ready can’t wait.

    1. Alistar D'souza says:

      Sorry to break the ice but AI cube is not 5g ready

    2. Adam says:

      The AI cube?

    3. Rich says:

      No it’s not 5G ready, the “5G” your seeing is referring to 5 Hz.

    4. Michael V says:

      I got the Huawei AI cube B900 from Three. It is great and speeds in my village are fast and consistent. However it is not 5G ready.

    5. Michael V says:

      Rich is right. It supports WiFi over the 5GHz band. It gives better performance & more capacity than what the 2.4GHz band can.

      Unfortunately some people may refer to the 5GHz band as 5G. It can be misleading for those who still aren’t aware on WiFi frequency bands.

  2. nic says:

    Is note 9 or oneplus 7 going to work with this new band?

    1. Techguy says:

      Ddue, there is a list of devices supported above.
      But yes they are.

  3. mike says:

    They say iPhones are compatible but Apple doesn’t list any 1400MHz support: https://www.apple.com/iphone/LTE/

    1. Simon Farnsworth says:

      It looks like the actual frequency range in use is LTE Band 32 (also called L-band, 1400 MHz and 1500 MHz depending on territory). Some iPhone models have band 32 support.

      RANT: I wish reporters and networks would get into the habit of including UMTS/LTE/5G NR band numbers when discussing spectrum. Band numbers are completely unambiguous (by design) even when bands overlap, and are published by most phone makers, too, so that you can quickly see if your device supports a given chunk of spectrum.

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      I’d happily reflect that if operators actually confirmed such details in their press releases, but often they don’t clarify the spectrum frequency bands or numbers. 5G also seems to adopt a different numbering scheme with nr prefixed, which can create some confusion for recycled bands from 4G / 3G.

    3. Simon Farnsworth says:

      @Mark Jackson Being reasonable, rather than ranty, I think the best I can ask of reporters like you is that you ask networks to give you the band numbers.

      IME, once you understand how it works, they’re not confusing. LTE and UMTS share the same band numbers, except that some band numbers don’t have UMTS radio parameters configured (e.g. LTE band 72 does not have a direct UMTS equivalent), and UMTS lettered the TDD bands instead of numbering them. The n just indicates that, in addition to possible UMTS and LTE RF rules, there are also defined 5G NR parameters (different delta-raster, different N-step for channel number determination, flexibility in sub carrier spacing).

      All that said, though, for consumers, it’s even simpler. If the network supports Band XYZ, then your phone needs to support Band XYZ to get full performance. If the network claims that adding Band ABC is going to improve things, then your phone needs to support Band ABC to get full benefit of that improvement.

      So, my phone supports band 32. Three’s new rollout is band 32, ergo I gain from it directly. My phone does not support band n1; if EE were to roll out band n1 services, I would not gain from them directly (although I might if it reduced demand on the bands I can use).

      If I’m looking for a LTE device to use with Three, I now want a phone that supports bands 1, 3, 20 and 32; those are the bands Three uses now, so that’s the minimum set I need for best coverage on Three.

      Similar applies over in 5G NR land; the only deployed band (for now) is n78, so to get best 5G performance today, I need a phone with n78 support. As the networks roll out more 5G NR bands, that list will grow, but all I need to know to understand it is that n78 describes what the network actually requires.

    4. Lex says:

      I agree with this, band numbers should be presented (it’s not critically hard to get that information for you to present it, also 3uk should be stating it as well witch is not ideal)

      I already knew it was lte 32 but not everyone does and most phone makers list the b1 numbers on there sites due to how many they generally support and the band number is more important then the frequency as phone might have 1400 but might be a different band support

  4. John Holmes says:

    The Huawei B525 23a router has Band 32 listed as available, so just need Three to enable my local mast.

  5. Adam says:

    I’m not sure if this is correct, but while reading on the thinkbroadband forums, some users found that band 32 will only work with the 800mhz frequency (band 20) on the AI cube with CA. That was with limited source information though. So won’t be able to connect to band 3 and band 32. May be the same with other Huawei 4g routers, not sure.

    1. Guy Cashmore says:

      Band 32 is ‘downlink only’ so can only function with carrier aggregation, typically this will be with band 20 or band 3 if my understanding is correct.

  6. peter says:

    cat 6 router ??? will solve

    1. Tim says:

      Not necessarily.

      L-Band (band 32) is SDL (Supplementary Downlink). So for L-Band to work the LTE modem must support CA (Carrier Aggregation) AND Band 32.

      As Three are reframing 3G adding L-Band and have existing LTE you’ll likely want a modem that has at least 3AC support to see the best improvement. So you’ll want Cat 9 or better.

  7. Mike says:

    I’m one of those who experiences faster 3g speeds compared to 4g on three’s network.
    4g speeds where I am struggles to reach 1 mbps down whereas with 3g I consistently get around 20 mbps down.
    With this refarming of 3g spectrum I’ve noticed a substantial reduction in my 3g speeds with no corresponding increase in 4g this past couple of weeks.
    4g still struggles and now 3g has become erratic ranging from 0.4 to only 3mbps.
    I wondered what was going on and three’s customer service and tech team had no idea either.
    They just advised I leave the router on auto which always picks up the unstable and slow 4g signal and not manually set it to 3g.
    The whole thing is a joke.

    1. Michael V says:

      Hey Mike. Seems like you’re best setting it to 3G HSPA only. My Home-Fi & now my Huawei cube are set to 4G only as 3G speeds are poor in my village. Go with what U think it’s best, not what services say.

    2. Guy Cashmore says:

      I had an almost identical problem which turned out to be the directional outdoor antenna was pointing in slightly the wrong direction, only about 30° out but made a massive difference. Lock the router in 4G mode then try adjusting the antenna to get the highest SINR value from the router mobile signal page.

  8. Leeman says:

    10gb a month per user may seem like a lot for a phone.
    The problem now though is offcom have ruled that network providers can not dictate how users use their sims.
    There is nothing stopping a user from taking their sim out of their phone and popping it into a router and using it as their main broadband source assuming they are on an unlimited plan.
    That along with the fact that there are now no limits on tethering and mobile hotspot use means average individual use will likely rise to the same levels as wired internet connections.
    So are the networks equipped for this or will there be a deterioration in service across the board. That is the question.

    1. Tom says:

      “The problem now though is offcom have ruled that network providers can not dictate how users use their sims.”

      Do you have a link/source for that information? Thanks.

  9. Michael V says:

    I’ve definitely seen an improvement in parts of Cardiff on 4G coverage & speeds. This cloud core networking migration could be helping. Refarming HSPA+ 2100mhz to LTE is definitely needed in more places & it’ll be interesting to see how 1400mhz improves things also.

  10. Gordon Thomas says:

    I was in a contract with Three and did not see 4G once. Glad to leave and joined Asda (EE) and immediately gained a big speed boost and 4G almost everywhere I go.

    1. Michael V says:

      I’m guessing you live somewhere rural with no 4G data coverage?
      Even with VoLTE we won’t see it if there’s 3G coverage.

  11. Mark says:

    Michael V. I’m afraid not everyone is rural, some areas are being held back by planning, nimbys and reluctant landowners, area where I live has thousands population but anti mobile mast, and have successfully stopped all masts being built for 15 years, and prevented some broadband cabinets being installed in the streets, one of the problems of living in AONB etc. Were being left behind.

  12. James Harkin says:

    Anyone noticed a significant drop in the quality of 4G while they roll out 5G. They did this when 3G went to 4G. In typical Apple fashion, nerf the older generation to push the new tech 🙁

    1. Michael V says:

      Hey James. Can’t say I have. I’ve mostly seen improvements over 4G this summer.

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