Mobile operator Three is in no rush to start selling 4G LTE services in the UK, even though rival EE already has a head start with its own network.
Instead, Three will focus on improving the ultra-fast 3G speeds it offers customers, David Dyson, chief executive of Three in the UK, told ZDNet.
This doesn't mean the operator won't continue to work toward a 4G rollout around September 2013, when EE hands over the 1800MHz spectrum it sold to Three. However, Dyson played down the benefits of 4G compared with his company's 3G speeds.
"I don't think 4G as a mass-market proposition is necessarily going to be a game changer, when you compare it against the latest generation of 3G," Dyson said on Thursday.
"So I don't think there is an immediate need to accelerate any sort of technologic upgrade to LTE in time scales which would be inconsistent with when we expect to get that 1800MHz spectrum," he added.
"I don't think 4G as a mass-market proposition is necessarily going to be a game changer"
In March, Three had to backtrack on marketing its ultra-fast 3G (42Mbps HSPA+) as 4G, saying it had made a "mistake" in a blog post. In its defence, there have been shifts in what can be called '4G' - until December 2010, LTE itself was classed as 3G by the ITU.
At the moment, Three's customers are getting speeds of around 6Mbps, and this will double to 12Mbps or faster once the operator has rolled out dual-carrier (DC-) HSPA connectivity, according to Dyson. Some customers with DC-HSPA-capable devices are getting 20Mbps already, he noted.
The operator wants to bump up its ultra-fast DC-HSPA 3G coverage from 39 percent of the population now to 50 percent by the end of 2012, and 80 percent by the end of March 2013. The expansion can happen quickly because a relatively simple software upgrade is required, according to Three's chief.
Another factor is Three's network-sharing agreement with EE, the parent of Orange and T-Mobile formerly known as Everything Everywhere. For the expansion, the smaller operator will tap into an extra 500 of Orange's best mobile cell sites. Currently, it has 13,200 cell sites, 82 percent with ethernet backhaul. By 2015, it hopes to have 18,000 sites, 95 percent with ethernet backhaul.
Getting ready for 4G
Despite this 3G push, Dyson is pleased that Three succeeded in buying the 1800MHz spectrum from EE, ahead of next year's spectrum auction
"If we hadn't got that spectrum, we’d have been going into the [4G] auction a bit blind in terms of what the outcome would be," he said . "Therefore our technical planning would be on hold until we knew what spectrum we would get."
"Because we are now assured that we will get the 1800MHz, we can start to develop our rollout plans around a specific frequency, which means we're getting ahead of the game now."
The company already has initial planning and work underway on the 4G network.
"We've already started to build our core network," Dyson noted. "We've got a test network in Maidenhead running on LTE. By the time we get access to the spectrum on 1800MHz, we will be able to give ourselves enough breathing space to put the kit in the ground."
The need for faster network speeds comes from the rising use of data by mobile device owners. Around 85 percent of Three's customers are smartphone owners, and monthly data usage per customer in October was just under 2.5GB, said Richard Woodward, chief financial officer at Three.
In total, more than nine million gigabytes of data passes across Three's network each month - around 43 percent of all the mobile data traffic in the UK, the company said. Of this, streaming video made up 54 percent; web browsing, 24 percent; and software updates, 15 percent.