Three may step up 4G to narrow its rivals’ leads

THE UK’S fourth-biggest mobile phone network, Three, has opened up the possibility of accelerating its rollout of next-generation 4G networks, a move that would reduce the headstart enjoyed by its rivals.

Three has previously talked about introducing 4G towards the end of the year, but chief executive David Dyson yesterday said that this could be sped up by months. This means that Three users could have access to the faster networks by late summer.

EE, the owner of Orange and T-Mobile, launched the UK’s first 4G network – which it claims offers mobile internet much faster than 3G – at the tail-end of last year, and O2 and Vodafone are set for their own versions in the coming months.

Analysts have questioned whether Three – which prides itself on its base of data-hungry customers – might see a user exodus due to being the last to market. However, Dyson said he did not feel under pressure to narrow rivals’ headstarts, claiming that EE’s 4G “hasn’t really had a material impact on the market”.

“As to whether [Three’s 4G] is a few months earlier [than planned] I’m pretty relaxed,” Dyson said. “We can defend the position we’ve got without necessarily having to jump into 4G too quickly. If in [coming months] it looks like we’re losing momentum in the market then maybe we can pull a lever that says we can accelerate.”

Whether Three can launch 4G earlier than planned may depend on the outcome of talks between the operator and EE, which acquired similar spectrum in Ofcom’s 4G auction in January. The two companies are negotiating on a deal that could see them work together on their respective networks.

Three, which has pledged not to charge its customers extra for 4G services, added 112,000 contract customers in the first three months of the year but lost 122,000 pay-as-you-go users. This is the first time the business, owned by Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, has seen a net decline for over a year, but Dyson said Three will continue to steal subscribers away from rivals in 2013.