When I was with Three a few years ago, I have had two main issues with their network coverage. The first issue was the total lack of 3G coverage in my area and the second is where my phone seems to prefer national roaming on to the
Vodafone and O2 2G masts.
While it sounds great being able to access three networks for call and texts, 2G is practically useless for data:
The above was a ping test in Kilcar, a town that was without 3G on any network. I would love to have run a speed test, but have been unsuccessful in getting a single test to complete!
If I’m in trying to use Internet radio on the move or browsing the web on the bus, the phone will spend most of its time national roaming on Vodafone or O2, particularly in areas where their coverage is stronger than 3G such as between Killybegs and Donegal town. A full 2G signal is no match for even a weak 1 bar 3G signal.
How to tell which network you’re using: If ‘G’, ‘E’ or ‘R’ are shown next to the signal bars and the network name is ‘3’ (without a dot), then the phone is connected to a former
Vodafone O2 2G mast. If the network name is ‘3.’ (notice the dot after 3), then the phone is connected to an O2 mast.
Update 6th September 2015: Around the 26th August, Three made a change where an O2 mast connection no longer shows as roaming or with the dot after the ‘3’. The only reliable way to tell now is with an App that shows the registered network operator. For example, in the Elixir2 App, go into Information -> Telephony -> More information and check what it says for ‘Operator’. 27201 is Vodafone (which Three no longer uses) and 27202 is O2.
One nice secret feature with most Android phones is they have a hidden menu to select specific network types. For example, the OnePlus can be set to use WCDMA (3G) only, LTE (4G) only or even both, effectively preventing the phone from using 2G, even in areas without 3G or 4G coverage.
To bring up the hidden menu, dial *#*#4636#*#*:
If you see a ‘Select radio band’ menu, do not touch it! On some phones, changing this setting will irreversibly limit the phone to the selected radio band until the proper radio firmware is flashed, which may be impossible if there is no radio firmware available. For example, some phones such as various Blackberry and Sony models, this menu will present one option “USA Band”, which if selected will render the phone useless outside of the USA as this setting can only be reversed by flashing the radio firmware.
Touch “Phone information”, then scroll down to where it says “Set preferred network type:”
Look through the options for ‘WCDMA only’ or ‘LTE/WCDMA’ (if available):
Don’t choose ‘LTE only’ unless using a dual SIM phone with a separate SIM for calls/texts as it may block the ability to make & receive calls. This option might be useful to check for such coverage or if is necessary to use 4G for a large file transfers. Note that Three uses 800MHz (LTE band 20) for 4G in some areas which is not supported by the OnePlus One and some other phones.
As far as I’m aware of, Three does not support voice calls on its 4G network yet, which means the phone needs to drop to 3G when a call is received or made. If the phone is currently on a 2G network, it will show no signal for about a minute until it connects to 3G (H or H+) or 4G (LTE).
The difference this makes to data performance is incredible such as on the bus as webpages load up a lot quicker with even a weak 3G signal than a full 2G signal. Internet radio works anywhere I get 3G coverage, not just whenever the phone decides to switch back to 3G.
On some phones such as the OnePlus One, this hidden network setting must be set each time the phone is powered off or restarted, otherwise it reverts back to automatic 2G/3G/4G selection. When this happens, the hidden network selection needs to be changed to something else (e.g. GSM only) first and then back to the WCDMA or WCDMA/LTE option.
A few manufacturers have disabled the secret menu for some reason. For example, the secret menu is disabled in the lollipop Android release for the LG G2 Mini, but was accessible in its earlier android versions.
Update 8th July 2015:
While in Donegal town, my phone decided to stay ‘roaming’ on O2 2G despite strong 3G coverage there, so I decided to make a screen recording of the above process to show this in action:
Note: If you are on the move, I recommend changing the setting back to allow 2G (GSM) access before heading off, unless you know you get good 3G coverage along the route. Otherwise calls will get cut off once the phone loses 3G coverage as this trick prevents the phone using 2G masts even for calls or texts.
Update 15th March 2017:
Quite a lot of people have asked why they never get 3G or 4G at all even with the phone set to WCDMA or LTE mode. The most likely reason is that the phone is for the wrong region, such as a USA T-Mobile network phone imported into Europe or vice versa.
The USA and Europe use separate 3G and 4G (LTE) bands. Most handsets are designed for a specific region and generally have just a subset of the bands for the other region. For example, US T-Mobile handsets lack support for the 900MHz 3G band and the 800MHz 4G band used in Ireland. As these bands are used extensively in rural locations, most GSM capable US phones will only get 2G coverage in rural areas and some display HSPA+ (3G) as 4G (which is not LTE).
Before purchasing a used phone, ask the seller where the phone was purchased if not mentioned in the listing.
Update 22nd March 2017:
I revised the above text to remove mentions of Vodafone. Three no longer permits national roaming on Vodafone 2G masts in any part of the country, at least not that I am aware of.
With some dual SIM phones such as the OnePlus 2, this trick will work for SIM slot #1 only, which must also be set as the default SIM for data. This can be useful when using one SIM for data only and another for calls and texts. E.g. Meteor broadband SIM for 4G data, forced in LTE only mode and a Lyca SIM for calls. See this article for tips on combining data and phone bundles.