Three’s Two Networks

In the UK, the 3 network has always had a bit of a reputation.

I’m sure 3 would be the first to assert that it now provides a service comparable to those offered by its four larger rivals, if not better in many respects. But it would also have to admit that its image was tarnished early on by teething problems with 3G technology, clunky phones and its decision to focus on the lower end of the market.

It seems some people have long memories, and still prefer to use other operators for talking and texting. The 3 network has gathered about 8 percent of the UK’s mobile subscribers in five years through steady if unexceptional growth.

But the advent of mobile broadband appears to have reset people’s expectations. Some of my friends are happy to sign up for a mobile broadband deal with 3, even if they’re reticent to use the same network for voice calls. It’s as if they think 3 has two networks: one for data and one for talking and texting.

When I challenge dealers about this it becomes clear that mobile broadband coverage can be less comprehensive than for talk and text. As long as people have a decent connection at home or in the office, they’ll consider 3’s network as “good enough”. This kind of “hot spot” coverage makes life easier for newer entrants (as well as laggards) across Europe. It means existing market shares mean little when subscribers are considering their choices in mobile broadband.

It’s a great opportunity for 3, and the network now has about 700,000 mobile broadband connections in the UK — a much larger number than its 8 percent total would merit. As growth in Europe’s mobile markets slows, leaving mobile broadband as one of the few areas still gaining new customers, 3 must be pleased with itself.

In the longer term, 3’s service will have to live up to people’s expectations. Subscribers to all mobile broadband services are just starting to discover that they’re not quite as robust or as fast as fixed-line access. If public opinion turns against mobile broadband, then 3, as the major supplier of such services, would bear the brunt of complaints. The network operator wouldn’t feel quite so pleased then.