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Three UK Confirms Plan to Switch-Off 3G Mobile Service by 2024

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022 (8:25 am) - Score 6,912
mobile mast red vector uk

Mobile operator Three UK has today become the latest provider – after Vodafone and EE – to announce that it aims to completely switch off their legacy 3G (mobile broadband) network by the end of 2024. The move will free up resources to allow Three to focus on improving the 4G experience and rolling out 5G to more parts of the UK.

The expected move is particularly poignant for Three UK, which is a network that launched in 2003 by positioning itself as the UK’s first 3G-only operator. But today 3G has long since been superseded by vastly superior 4G services and not to mention the latest generation of gigabit-capable 5G infrastructure, which is making rapid progress as it continues to roll out.

NOTE: Three, which claims to carry 28% of UK mobile data traffic – the average data usage per customer per month on their network is now 19GB (up 20% YoY) – predicts that 5G will account for 35% of data usage by the end of 2022.

The announcement follows last year’s agreement between the government and mobile operators (here), which saw Vodafone, EE (BT), O2 (VMO2) and Three UK agree a national plan to phase out all existing 2G and 3G services by 2033. The associated spectrum will be repurposed back for use to enhance modern 4G and 5G services.

However, mobile operators have long expected to retire 3G before 2G, which is largely because 2G is still quite widely used (e.g. Smart Meters and other low powered IoT devices) and remains a useful fallback for predominantly voice-only style communications in some challenging (e.g. rural) areas.

In keeping with that, rival operator EE already plans to retire 3G – representing just 2% of their data traffic – by phasing it off their network in time for the end of 2023; it’ll then be fully shut down in 2024 (here), while Vodafone appears to be following a similar path (here). Both also expect to close 2G services in 2025. Only O2 (VMO2) has yet to announce their plan, but we’d expect their retirement of 2G to take longer as they’re used by a lot of Smart Meters.

David Hennessy, Chief Technology Officer at Three UK, said:

“3G kick-started the mobile revolution – and launched Three into the UK 20 years ago – but the future is undoubtedly 5G. As we continue to roll out our ultrafast connectivity, by not only upgrading our existing 4G sites but building new 5G sites, we’ll be in a position to switch off our use of 3G across our network by the end of 2024.

As the leader in 5G deployment and the fastest network as rated by Ookla®, we are focused on delivering our goal of providing better connectivity, every day, for every customer.”

Naturally, switching off 3G will cause data connectivity problems for the minority of customers who still rely on a 3G-only device. On this point, Three UK notes that all 4G voice calling devices provided by Three since mid-2018 are Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE / 4G) capable.

As the date 3G will be switched off approaches, if a customer has an older 3G-only device or non-VoLTE voice device, Three says they “will work with its customers to ensure they stay connected,” but they didn’t elaborate on that. Nevertheless, every technology has its day and the time for 3G to depart has come.

As above, the major benefit from this will be that any 3G friendly spectrum can then be allocated to 4G and 5G services, which tends to improve data speeds and boost coverage. Every cloud..

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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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40 Responses
  1. MilesT says:

    For absolute clarity…Three doesn’t “fallback” to 2G voice if 4g is not available (coverage or device)…is that correct?

    Three also withdrew their VoIP over WiFi android app which helped for devices which don’t have VoLTE (e.g. Alcatel Idol4), would help if they brought that back or something similar to avoid forced handset upgrades

    1. Ben says:

      Three doesn’t have any 2G spectrum etc., so there’s nothing to fall back to. Many moons ago they were allowed to roam onto another network’s 2G, but I believe that arrangement ended ~10 years ago.

    2. Matt says:

      Ben is correct. Back in the day, they would fall back to Orange as an absolute worst case of there being nothing available.

      From my experience, this fallback rarely happened. It was always frustrating if you had 1 bar of 3G service, as you really couldn’t do much with it.

    3. Adam says:

      The 2G fallback to Orange mostly ended about 10 years ago, but did still stand in a select few rural areas. I know the little village where my mother-in-law lives still had my phone fallback to using the ‘Orange’ 2G network right up until the local mast was upgraded about a year and a half ago

    4. simon says:


      For me anyway – that app was a pile of intrusive junk. I am glad it’s gone.

  2. Matthew Morgan says:

    What will happen to the villages that Three never upgraded to 4G?

    1. Michael says:

      They will of course add 4G.
      No operator would decommission a network & not upgrade the Gs

    2. John H says:

      Got the same issue, nearest Three mast is 3G only, my 4G router with antenna gets 4G from a further away mast but my 4G phone connects to the local 3G only mast. If they just turn that 3G mast off then no Three mobile signal.

    3. High Lander says:

      “No operator would decommission a network & not upgrade the Gs”

      Exactly what Three did in the past. They stopped using 2G so many places without 3G were cut off. I had to leave Three and use another network witch still had 2G coverage nationwide.

      I’m regularly in places without 4G or where I fallback to 3G. Going on past experience I don’t see Three replacing 3G with 4G – never mind 5G – any time soon.

    4. GG says:

      @High Lander
      That was different – the 2G was a fallback onto other network’s 2G as part of an agreement whilst they became established. It disappeared when that agreement ended.
      For a while I had my phone locked on 2G as the 3G coverage was so bad, but that’s a long, long time ago.

    5. Sam says:

      Three had 2G? I thought they were based on 3G, hence the name Three.

    6. GG says:


      No, their own network at the start was all 3G. They licensed 2G (effectively as a MVNO) from others to fill gaps in their coverage whilst they rolled out. Your phone transparently roamed between their own 3G and the other fallback 2G.

  3. Michael says:

    Three UK agree a national plan to phase out all existing 2G and 3G services.

    > Typing mistake.
    Three don’t have a 2G network.

  4. Michael says:

    Great news. My phone is set to 4G/5G anyway.
    Never see 3G.

  5. Paul says:

    I thought smart meters use 3G

    Is this not correct? And they in fact use 2G?

    1. Simon says:

      Yes they use 2G/3G provided by O2 so not impacted by this decision from Three. The comms modules will need to be upgraded to 4G and will become available in 2023 I believe.

    2. Craig says:

      In some areas they use O2, in other areas Arqiva have a “Long Range Radio” mesh network that is used for the return path. I’m sure I read somewhere it’s Zigbee but could be wrong on that bit.

      The north of England and Scotland use the Arqiva network the midlands and south use O2.

    3. Silly Smartmeter says:

      wait, there was an article not too long ago back about how some town couldn’t have wifi including smart meters because there was an RAF radar base nearby. The article explained that these things worked on their own frequency and not the GSM system.

      So is that some of them, all of them or ???

    4. Gregowski says:

      In Poland they use 4G/Lte in band 72 (450 MHz) for the best coverage and speed. This band is only used for this purposes

  6. simon says:

    That’s a shame. I recently was somewhere with bad signal – everyone must have been on 4G but I had the sense to knock it down to 3G and I got about 10mbps down compared to 3-4 on 4G

    1. Lee Valdro says:

      In my area 4g is so over capacity it is unusable, I switch my phone to 3g and get a usable 2mb

    2. Gregowski says:

      Unfortunately that is the case with Three in urban areas.

      Some parts of Southampton im hardly getting 1mbps on 4G and 3G does nearly 10mbps. And then i get 5G with over 1000mbps…

      Welcome to Three 😀

  7. GothBoyUK says:

    I have been with Three for about a decade. I’ve never used the local 4G network because there’s almost NO data throughput on it (we’re talking 10Kpbs off peak) but the 3G side is faster than my Sky Broadband. Three have apparently been ‘aware of the problem’ since about 2017 and ‘are upgrading the 4G network’ every few months, according to the texts I get sent. Other suppliers aren’t particularly reliable for voice here, despite being in an open suburban area of Tyneside and several masts being only a few hundred metres away in various directions. I had been with Cellnet-BT-O2 since 1999 and it was fine until something changed locally and the O2 signal became unusable indoors. Three was the only remaining option.

    1. Neil says:

      As far as i’m aware, the networks have been slowly decommissioning 3G to free spectrum for 4G & 5G. This could be the reason people are seeing changes like yourself and not realising why. Just happens that 3 make a broad announcement and there are people up in arms about it, yet they’ve all been doing it in stealth. I read about this a few years ago they were all planning to dismission 3G over time in favour of 4G and 5G.

  8. Sam says:

    Sometimes I get better speeds on 3G over 4G on Three.

  9. Neil says:

    I guess three will have to rebrand and call itself four or five.

    1. Michael says:

      Three are in 8 countries. I might make sense from a consumer view.
      It was originally supposed to launch as H3G. H = Hutchinson. Maybe they should use that name.

    2. Terry O'Toole says:

      They should get themselves ahead of the pack and rename themselves “6”.

  10. CJ says:

    As well as the extra capacity on 4G, removing non-VoLTE devices from the 4G network will allow them to increase power levels on 4G 1800 which should mean better 4G coverage especially indoors, and dropping down to 4G 800 less often.

  11. Stephen Wakeman says:

    I consider 3 to be a bottom feeder player in the market. The only thing they seem to compete on (very aggressively) is price. You need look only as far as reviews and user forums to see everything else is dog muck.

    You don’t get a signal.
    You do get a signal but contention is huge so the bandwidth you get sucks.
    You try to complain or end your contract and they have no customer service.
    Their customer facing account systems are insecure and stories of people seeing other customer’s account details and card info etc are quite common.

    The reason they’re so oversubscribed is because they’re cheap and they’re the lowest common denominator service.

    I’m away on holiday now in rural North Wales and get a full 4G signal with good throughput in the holiday cottage. Check 3’s own coverage make for where I am and it only has 3g available here. How can the company be eyeing 5g when it hasn’t even done a proper job of implementing 4g in places?

    3 – the score out of ten the company gets. Cheap and nasty.

    1. James Brown says:

      I mostly agree with your assessment. Really the worst three experience is roaming data. If you place a Swisscom and Three phone side by side when roaming in Spain (on the same network) and run a speed test, you will notice that There are stuck in the dialup era.

    2. Declan M says:

      With you 100% I wouldn’t touch 3 with a barge pole

  12. Peza says:

    Great, I get a 3G switching ti 4G and back again signal on their network. Can’t see them upgrading anything as they claimed to have already done so before. I think it’s premature to be switching off 3G.

  13. PC1 says:

    Does that mean Im going to have to stop using my little Samsung Young phone? Darn. Cant stand all those big jobbies.

  14. Gary says:

    Can’t see any of this happening within that time period.

    4G on Three was generally awful. A few good spots, but mostly not!

    I would always have to fall back to 3G to avoid 4G congestion on Three.

    Good luck with switching it off and having decent coverage by 2024. Fingers crossed!

  15. Darren Stanley says:

    TESCO/O2 still doesn’t provide VoLTE on Motorola smartphones, yet Motorola tells me they are capable.
    When the networks still aren’t providing VoLTE on all brands what then???!!

    1. Carl O says:

      Not all networks support VoLTE on all phones, common practice, takes work to implement into the phones software to make it compatible and it’s likely negligible impact so they don’t bother. OnePlus is a prime example.

  16. Mark says:

    I used to be on Three, the speeds I got made Dial-Up look fast!! Rang up to complain many times and was simply told “Our 4G network is over-subscribed, switch to 3G instead” and then they walked me through the steps on how to do it! I don’t know what speeds I was getting on 4G as I could never even perform a speed test as it timed out, but went up to 11Mb on 3G!

    Same story when I was with O2 as well, 4G seemed to top out at 0.8Mb but 3G was giving me 7Mb constantly! I moved to EE 5 months ago and the saying “You get what you pay for” certainly rings true. 3x the cost but 4G has never dropped below 70Mb!

  17. yeehaa says:

    I still remember when 3 officially launched rather appropriated on 3rd March 2003 or 3/3/03.

    1. yeehaa says:

      *appropriated – appropriately!

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