5G and Beyond

Three UK talks up 4G, 5G progress

Barely four months after giving an update on IT and network rollout, and three months since posting full-year financial results for 2020, which also gave details on capex and network expansion, Three UK – the UK's smallest mobile network operator – has wheeled out another progress report.

Aside from incremental increases in 5G sites, plus a rise in the number of 4G and 5G sites fed with fiber – we'll come to that in a minute – Three flagged that it had "enhanced" 4G by offering 1400MHz airwaves to over 1,900 sites.

The addition of extra spectrum, asserted Three, means capacity has doubled on upgraded sites and can – in a best-case scenario – triple existing downlink speeds.

Three said there were plenty of 1400MHz-compatible devices out there in the market, including iPhone 11 and 12, recent Samsung smartphone iterations (earliest one S8), devices from OnePlus and Oppo and the Google Pixel range.

Three UK also hailed the success of a new anti-spam filter introduced at the end of last year to combat "smishing" issues faced by customers. The idea is to block spam and fraudulent SMS.

On the whole it seems to be working. Three UK says there has been a reduction of more than 90% in reports from Three customers to its spam reporting service in the last few months.

On the 5G front, Three UK said it had 1,300 live sites, up marginally from the 1,250 announced in February. Out of around 16,500 sites in total, 3,500 are now connected to 10Gbit/s backhaul transmission using fiber. The number in February was 3,200.

Three framed the update as part of its "£2bn+" investment to "significantly transform its network and IT infrastructure." The ambitious program, which includes handing over responsibility to Microsoft Azure for running IT systems currently managed in-house, has been on the go for over two years.

Are you impressed?

There is a sense that the latest update from Three is another stab at reassuring parent company CK Hutchison that things are moving in the right direction after a turbulent period of profit strain and customer losses not so long ago.

A new management team has been assembled, which includes CEO Robert Finnegan and David Hennessy, who was appointed CTO last month. Hennessy, formerly CTO at Three Ireland, is responsible for both networks and IT systems at the UK operation.

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As part of the feel-better narrative coming from Three, CFO Darren Purkis spoke of "turning a corner" in the second half of 2020 on the back of full-year results.

Another possible upside is a fairly healthy 5G spectrum portfolio. After an acquisition of UK Broadband in 2017 it boasts 140MHz of spectrum between 3.4GHz and 3.8GHz, which includes a contiguous 100MHz block.

It also acquired 2x10MHz of 700MHz spectrum for £280m in a recent auction. Purkis described it as a "massive win," and one that will have "a transformative impact indoors and in rural areas."

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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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