I am a Three prepay customer and my phone is the OnePlus One. At a first glance, the two seem like great combination where the OnePlus is great for multimedia video and the Three network provides “All you can eat” data on the 4G network using band 3 (1800MHz) that the OnePlus supports.
In reality, my phone does not work in most rural 4G coverage areas and Three’s “All you can eat” data can slow down to a trickle very quickly, regardless of the time of day.
LTE Band 20 (800MHz)
When Three obtained 4G spectrum through the multi-band spectrum auction November 2012, it did not get any spectrum in the 800MHz band that was formerly used by analogue TV. So when I bought the OnePlus One, I knew the lack of band 20 was not going to be an issue with the Three network.
Then Three took over O2, which completed July 2014. So what’s this got to do with 4G? Well, O2 (Telefonica Ireland Ltd) did purchase spectrum in the 800MHz band and it appears that Three have already put that spectrum to use in rural areas such as Co. Donegal.
I first got suspicious when I saw three showing 4G coverage in various parts of Donegal, but my phone would not pick up 4G no matter where I tried it. Even with my phone set to ‘LTE Only’ through the hidden radio bands menu, it showed ‘No coverage’ all the way from Killybegs to Letterkenny, even in areas showing fairly strong coverage on the map such as Barnesmore Gap.
After talking about this with a friend, he e-mailed me a day later saying he got coverage in Bruckless and sent me a screenshot showing 4G with 3 bars and an impressive speed test result on his iPhone 6. This time I took my old HTC One SV phone (supports band 20) to bruckless and tested my SIM card between the two phones. The HTC showed a 2 bar 4G signal, while the OnePlus claimed there is no coverage in ‘LTE Only’ mode. 4G is working on the OnePlus as I used it recently in Dublin and it actually picked up better 4G coverage there than what I previously got with the HTC.
Another fairly clear sign that it’s LTE band 20 (800MHz) is that the signal goes through walls much better than Three’s 3G (2100MHz) band. When I took the HTC to work, I pick up 2 to 3 bars 4G outside and 1 to 2 bars walking throughout the building. With 3G, the outdoor reception is 4 to 5 bars and the signal varies from no signal to 4 bars walking about just a single room.
Both the HTC One SV and OnePlus One don’t support LTE band 8 (900MHz), so I am fairly sure they are not using band 8 (900MHz) for 4G and I don’t think any other network is using that band either due to most of the 900MHz spectrum being in use by the legacy GSM 2G network.
Update 8th June 2015: I came across this forum thread where an official Three representative has stated that Three is using the 800MHz and 1800MHz bands for LTE (4G).
Three throttling traffic (downloads)
When I conduct speed tests, I use TestMy.net. The android Ookla Speedtest app is totally unreliable and I posted a video showing just how badly it measures my two home ISP connections, such as measuring my DSL uplink at 1.18Mbps when it’s physically synced at just 384kbps:
TestMy is fairly accurate and its linear speed test results match up very close to what I actually get on FTP file transfers to Blacknight, where I host this blog. It can also run a multi-threaded test to find the total capacity of the line that cannot be maxed out with a single connection, but based on testing a friend’s Sky VDSL connection it has no problem measuring 70Mbps of throughput with a linear connection and possibly a lot more with a faster connection.
As TestMy is not a well-known speed test tool, most ISPs that throttle traffic don’t whitelist TestMy’s servers like they do with Ookla’s Speedtest servers, so it’s an effective tool at checking if an ISP is throttling traffic when Speedtest.net still shows a “fast” connection.
On the first day I started trying out Three’s 4G on my old HTC phone, I found it odd that after the first three speed tests, I was getting poor test results. When I swapped the SIM card with my OnePlus, the next test gave a better result despite running on 3G and when I put the SIM card back in the HTC, it also gave a much better result until I ran a few more tests. However, as it was Sunday evening, I figured that the variations were caused by a combination of network congestion and having just a 1 bar signal while visiting my brother in Letterkenny.
The next day I was at work, I took the HTC phone along again and this is where I discovered I get reasonably good 2 to3 bars of 4G coverage, 26dB to 28dB S/N going by the LTE discovery app. So I started running speed tests. After the download test completed, I noticed it took an unusually long time to download the 6MB block for the following upload test. So I did another download test and sure enough it dropped from 16.6Mbps to something like 4Mbps.
Each test-run got progressively slower until it was getting around 500kbps in the multi-threaded test. So I switched to linear mode just to see what the speed would be like if I was downloading an individual file from that server and the following just shows just how severely Three throttled my connection to the UK TestMy server since the first test:
Just before that awful 191kbps test result, I ran TestMy’s Mercury test, where it conducts a speed test using a user-defined image link. So I placed a 5MB JPEG image on my host and gave it the link to test with and it’s pretty clear that it’s not a network congestion issue:
Finally, just to show it’s not a coverage issue, I ran the following test using Google’s CDN. Three are obviously not going to throttle Google’s servers without risking disrupting other Google services such as YouTube, Google+, etc. and the following shows a stark difference to how Three treats traffic from different sources:
It’s worth noting that my phone was in the exact same spot when it gave the 191kbps result with TestMy’s UK server and the 34.1Mbps result with the Google CDN server. These tests were also conducted Wednesday morning, when I’m sure there is little network congestion. The upload result above was produced by the TestMy UK server as Three didn’t appear to throttle the few uploads I managed to carry out. As TestMy needs to first download the block to run its upload test, it was taking several minutes to run each upload test, even though the upload stage of the test took just a few seconds.
So what’s my plan?
Initially I was disappointed finding out that Three is using spectrum not covered by my OnePlus One. But when I found out just how badly they are throttling data transfers, I began wondering – What’s the point of 4G if you can only get 2G-like speed after using roughly 50MB of data?
50MB might seem like a large file, but this is equivalent to just a few minutes of standard definition video and would make it impossible to stream on less well-known video streaming websites that Three haven’t whitelisted against being throttled.
What I plan doing is running a few more speed tests after the free 4G ends in June to see whether they relax their throttling once 4G access requires purchasing an add-on. After that, I’m seriously thinking of switching network. It will be pointless paying extra for 4G if you can only get the benefit of 4G on selected websites!
Update: 5th June 2015
It appears that Three has either relaxed or lifted its throttling. I probably went through about 1GB of data running speed tests over the course of the day. Multi-threaded speed tests started around 28Mbps in the morning, peaked at 34Mbps and went down to around 22Mb towards 5pm whether I used TestMy’s UK server or the Google CDN. In linear tests, the lowest test result I got was 4.23Mbps around 4:20pm, compared to 0.2Mbps last week. The majority of the linear tests gave between 6Mbps and 9Mbps:
On my way to work, I stopped in Bruckless to perform a speed test and recorded the highest 4G speed test I’ve seen on my own handset. The upload speed was unusually low, probably due to the 2 bar signal:
Then again, as Three plan charging €5/month for 4G in July, it makes sense to make its 4G service stand out. Even with my phone in 3G mode, I still got pretty impressive results:
Finally, my home ISP North West Electronics (I’m in a mobile blackspot), which I’m paying for the 50Mb service:
Update: 11th June 2015
Three have extended their 4G promotion to the 30th June 2016. Bill pay and prepay O2 customers will be able use the 4G band in July 2015, so it’s quite likely they have extended the promotion so these O2 customers get a year to try out 4G before deciding whether it’s worth paying for. Had Three not extended the promotion, these O2 customers would have completely missed out on the 4G promotion since 4G has no been available to these customers.
On the other hand, three still mentions that the €20 “All You Can Eat” top-up offer ends at the end of June 2015. So even if 4G remains free for another while, there could still be a charge to avail of the “All You Can Eat” data. Technically, it is free like the 4G at the moment as topping up by €20 to avail of the “All You Can Eat” data and texts still adds €20 to the credit balance to use on calls, etc. Other networks such as Meteor gobble up the €20 top-up to avail of their 7.5GB and unlimited texts offer, requiring a further top-up just to add credit.
If they extend this €20 AYCE offer or make it reasonably priced, I’ll likely stick with Three for another year assuming no other issues arise. Since the above update, I haven’t noticed any further throttling. I have observed a few slowdowns, which are likely network glitches. For example, the upload speed in Donegal town on 3G is typically below 0.1Mbps any time of day. I reported the issue to Three a few months ago, but the issue still remains each time I run an upload test in the town:
Update: 12th June 2015
With the SIM back in my old HTC One SV, I manually ran speed tests on TestMy roughly each hourly interval. For the download test, I ran a linear test letting it pick the block size, followed by a multi-threaded test with a 50MB or 100MB block. These tests were run in the Chrome app on the handset. The vertical axis is Mbps.
It is interesting seeing the dip around 1:30pm, probably many users watching video clips during their lunch break. I ran a few more tests around that time and sure enough it was not a one off as I got roughly the same speed each time, with the linear speed no higher than 4Mbps.
Update: 16th June 2015
The 3G uplink in Donegal town seems to be fixed based on a few tests I ran on Saturday and today (Tuesday):
The above result is also the fastest uplink I’ve seen on 3G with TestMy.
Update: 19th June 2015
Three have extended their €20 top-up offer another year, which is very nice. 🙂 So it appears their recent price increases don’t affect existing 3 prepay customers.
One problem I now have is that my HTC One SV phone is very near the end of its life. It has been having problems powering up over the past two months where it took a second or third boot attempt as it was getting stuck on the white HTC One logo screen. Today I’m sure it took around 10 attempts and I was just about to give up when it finally booted. I already carried out several full data wipes and master resets, reflashing the firmware, bootloader, etc. but all with no improvement.
With the rally on in Letterkenny today, I decided to run speed tests on roughly a 30 minute interval throughout my work day. Unsurprisingly, the network speed was well down from the above graph, but still quicker than 3G on a good day:
Update 23rd October 2015
Three seems to be throttling http traffic again and this time even multi-threaded transfers offer little improvement. With TestMy implementing a https speed test, it’s pretty easy now to tell whether Three or any other network is discriminating between http and https traffic.
The following tests were taken this morning with a full LTE signal on the OnePlus 2 near Ballybofey, all with a 25MB test block size for consistency:
Speed test with a http connection:
Multithreaded test with a http connection:
Speed test with a https (SSL) connection:
Even with repeated tests, the https based tests consistently deliver significantly faster results.
Update 15th June 2017
As this old article continues to get a lot of views, I thought I’ll make a quick update. I have actually switched mobile operator twice since posting this article and am using a OnePlus Two, a superior phone with band 20 (800MHz) support.
My first move was to Meteor, which is of no surprise given my awful experience with Three’s network performance. While Meteor’s 3G speed was like night vs day over Three’s 4G, their coverage was somewhat lacking. I could no longer listen to Internet radio on my way to work due to some areas being limited to Meteor 2G coverage.
Towards the end of 2016, I ran into another issue with Meteor – My speed kept getting intermittently capped to about 300Kbps until I toggled airplane mode. Unfortunately Meteor just kept blaming my handset. When I asked about the areas lacking 3G/4G coverage, they claimed that they offered great coverage there (based on their exaggerated coverage map), again asking me to try another handset. I gave up and made the switch to Vodafone and the 3G coverage was vastly superior.
As for Three, just before I left the Three network I got another Three SIM to continue testing and also a Meteor broadband SIM. Basically I wanted to see how well these would work to supplement my DSL connection, particularly with a router and outdoor antenna. To see how Three 4G compares with Meteor 3G and Vodafone 3G in my rural area, head to this article. This includes a video showing real-world test-runs loading various websites, downloading and YouTube streaming.