Cutting Room: Three no longer the runt of the litter

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Following the celebration of its 10-year anniversary, Samantha Tomaszczyk argues Three has gone from a network with a number of teething problems to one that is now considered a major player in the market

It’s not been an easy ride for Three since it launched in the UK just over 10 years ago.

The operator had all kinds of teething problems, ranging from unreliable (not to mention downright ugly) handsets, limited signal quality and – perhaps its biggest problem – poor customer service. Some of these stigmas remain.

Its future has been up for debate on numerous occasions, with all the network operators at some stage linked to an acquisition.

But it hasn’t happened, and today Three plays a major role in the UK space – something its rivals perhaps preferred wasn’t the case – of which more in a moment.

Three’s impact on the UK market cannot be denied. While researching my feature on Three, one thing that struck me in particular was Three’s determination to really embrace the idea of mobile internet.

Quality of service may not have been ideal, but for many this was the first – not to mention most affordable – way of getting online. Not only was Three the first to turn on its 3G network, it took the initiative to create content for it, even launching a precursor to YouTube, SeeMeTV.

Of course, it couldn’t have done any of this without parent Hutchison Whampoa holding its hand every step of the way, with the Chinese conglomerate’s deep pockets arguably the only reason it survived those early, loss-making days.

Disrupter
In fact, Three was the runt of the litter at launch in 2003, with competitors O2, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile all having more experience and bigger customer bases from their roots in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, while Three ended 2003 with 361,000 customers, O2 added 430,000 that year to bring its total to just over 13 million.

But Three has slowly closed the gap in the past 10 years. It is now the UK’s fastest-growing network, adding one million customers in 2012 – taking its total base to 8.8 million – while O2’s only grew by one per cent year on year to 22.5 million at the end of September. And this growth looks set to continue, with Three announcing in March its customer base now stands at 9.1 million.

Three also more than doubled its spectrum resource in the 4G auction earlier this year, meaning it has what it needs to compete with the others on superfast services.

Having said this, it is hard to draw direct comparisons between Three and the other UK operators, as it seems to delight in doing things differently. This difference in strategy can only widen with the launch of 4G, as Three goes one way with a DC-HSDPA-4G hybrid offering (at no extra cost over 3G), while the others are expected to separate 3G and 4G technologies and charge a premium for the latter.

Only time will tell whether Three’s maverick approach will pay off – we can’t test a non-existent network – but they should be commended for sticking to their value offerings and giving customers a choice which is so vital to the competitiveness of the UK mobile market.

4G pricing promise
Three has also stood by its unlimited data offerings for 4G, an idea shunned by O2, Vodafone and EE. Again, here Three is bucking the trend to the benefit of consumer choice, and perhaps it will be rewarded as customers scared by data caps move to its network – although you have to wonder why Three has decided not to launch 4G until the end of the year, when O2 and Vodafone are planning a summer launch, and EE already has its up and running.

It is a shame to see the UK’s first 3G network fall behind when it comes to the next step – 4G. And will its brand image, built on 3G, stand in its way? It can hardly change its name to Four, can it?

Looking to the future, Three will offer 4G at a lower price than the other UK operators, and only its users will benefit from all-you-can-eat data offerings when it comes to the latest technology.

Three is banking on the UK population continuing to use their smartphones for high-bandwidth activities such as streaming YouTube videos. For those who want the freedom to do this, Three’s comparatively cheap, unlimited ultrafast offering may be the best answer.

Of course, to succeed Three must learn from its earlier failings and create a network with a reputation for decent coverage – something it seems to have done, with its upgraded 3G network (DC-HSDPA) now covering 80 per cent of the UK population.

While Three may always have its doubters, few could deny the operator – the UK’s runt of the litter – is not only here to stay, but looks set to play a major role in the next 10 years in the ever changing mobile market space.

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