Mobile operator Three has finally unveiled its rollout schedule and pricing details for its impending 4G launch, setting the stage for the real 4G battle in the UK to begin.

The operator announced the details on Thursday, revealing that the first three cities to get 4G will be London, Birmingham and Manchester, beginning in December. When in December? That’s not so clear, but Three has promised to speed up the process in January to cover 50 UK cities before the end of 2014 and eventually grow it to 98 percent of the population by the end of 2015.

And how much will it cost? The same as you’re paying now, if you’re a Three customer. In fact, in a departure from the other major UK networks it’s offering a streamlined, simplified upgrade process, at least in the sense that there is no need for one.

Once Three’s 4G service has been switched on in the customer’s town, an over-the-air software upgrade is all that’s required, so there will be no need to go into a store or start a new contract, providing they have a 4G-capable phone already.

In another departure from the rest of the pack, Three has confirmed that customers will keep their existing tariffs too, which means it’ll be the only network in the UK to offer 4G on an unlimited data tariff. Naturally, this means there will be some limited data tariffs too.

So, for example, if you bought a Galaxy S4 today on the Ultimate Internet or One (all of which include unmetered data) plans it would cost from £33 per month with no up-front charge. Come December, it would cost exactly the same, you’d just get a bit of a speed boost.

Coincidental timing?

The timing of Three’s announcement, coming at midnight on the switch-on day of two of the UK’s largest rival operators no less, is no coincidence whatsoever. When it comes to the mobile market, no holds are barred when it comes to scoring new customers and keeping your existing ones.

It does seem like quite a coincidence that O2 and Vodafone are both switching on their respective services too, doesn’t it?

But more than price plans and launch dates the announcement from Three at last cements the UK’s medium-term mobile infrastructure landscape, and brings much needed competition, and by extension choice, to UK consumers.

With Vodafone and O2 both switching on their 4G services in various parts of the country today, they’ll both be vying to attract new users to their networks before Three can bring its services to market.

However, for current Three customers it gives an incentive to stick with the smaller of the four big networks and be rewarded by not having to set out on a new contract or change their tariff; people do tend to like simplicity and sticking with what they know.

For non-Three customers it provides a price point that differs from the alternatives; both Vodafone and O2 start from £26 per month.

The ‘unlimited’ effect

Does it really matter that the other networks aren’t offering unlimited data? Well, yes and no. Vodafone and EE have both said that unlimited data isn’t necessary for UK consumers. I’ve already argued why that misses the point somewhat, but it bears repeating that an average consumer might well not need unlimited data on tap but it should be up to them to decide what they want to use the service for, not the other way around.

What if I have other devices I want to tether? What if I like downloading Linux ISOs, or HD movies while I’m tethering? If I’ve got a 4G tariff with a 3GB data limit, that’s just not going to be an option. I could upgrade to 8GB, but will that be enough? It might be some of the time, but other times it definitely won’t. So I should go for a 10GB or 20GB allowance, right? If you have an unlimited allowance, you never need to worry about it.

So more than the simplicity of Three’s approach, or perhaps fittingly going alongside it, freedom from worrying about data limits and peace of mind are pretty tempting factors in a price plan and should give rival operators cause to reconsider their approach to the UK not needing unlimited plans.

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