Last week, Three became the latest UK network to switch on a live 4G service, but rather than go for an all-singing, all-dancing launch, it has started with a soft roll-out in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Reading. This this is set to grow to cover 50 towns and cities by the end of 2014 and 98 percent of the UK (by population, not geography) by the end of 2015.

So what sort of speeds can users expect in the areas where the network is already live? In our hands-on testing today, somewhere between 4Mbps and 13Mbps, but performance will vary according to how close to a cell site you are, Phil Sheppard, head of network strategy for Three, told me.

3 4G test 730x623 Unlimited 4G data and warnings of a capacity crunch arent scary, says Three UKs head of network

I queried why the speeds were a bit lower than I had been expecting (as a 4G user already), and why Three hadn’t chosen a location that was known to be close to a cell site for the demo? Because that’s not a normal experience of 4G, was the response.

For comparison, a speed test carried out on my own HTC One using the Speedtest.net Android app on the EE network returned a download speed of 25Mbps and an upload of around 11Mbps. I repeated the test a few times to make sure it wasn’t a one-off, all of which were above 21Mbps download and above 5Mbps on the upload.

To take the upper and lower outliers of the tests today, the difference between around 4Mbps and around 25Mbps on a rival network is quite large, but Sheppard said Three was only just beginning to ramp up operations, and its overall approach was quite different.

Essentially, where I pay a premium (over 3G pricing) for my 4G EE contract, Three customers won’t need to sign up to a new contract or pay a penny more than 3G customers. Provided they have a 4G-ready phone, all they need is an over-the-air software update (these are already being sent out to some customers before the network has even been switched on, leading to some minor confusion) and they’re good to go.

In contrast to O2’s, Vodafone’s and EE’s new contract approach, this seems pretty appealing, even if the network speeds are a bit lower initially.

4G, unlimited

As well as taking a slightly softer approach to launching the service, Three is the only national UK network to keep its unlimited data caps in place on plans that already have them. There are no new contracts to sign, so the existing data limits remain in place.

With warnings of a potential capacity crunch and feverish research into shoring up capacity for 5G Britain and beyond, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some networks are looking to keep a lid on whatever they deem excessive data usage. But these warnings aren’t of a capacity crunch coming tomorrow – research is being done years in advance, so why are operators capping use now? And why is the UK’s underdog network so confident in its ability to keep the data flowing, even with unlimited usage?

Sheppard said that, simply, as a smaller operator with a big data network it’s had to deal with the situation already.

“We have market share of about 10 percent and we already carry about 43 percent of the data traffic, so we’ve had to deal with that major explosion a year or so earlier than anybody else… So, we’re a little bit more comfortable with dealing with a capacity crunch… in other words, we’ve already seen it.

“In the long run, there’s going to be pressure on capacity, and by the long run I mean several years… [but] there’s other technologies coming along, like small cell sites which try to address capacity. It’s always a balance.”

Sheppard noted that while tariffs could still change on the Three network in the future, both 3G and 4G would still cost the same.

“Pricing strategy might change in the future, but what we’re saying is 4G is going to be the same as 3G regardless.

“The main reason, if I may be blunt, to people charging is just: how much revenue can you get for how much traffic? That’s really the main reason for pricing. There is a price per MB you need to recover money on [but] … it’s a very small amount actually.

“The worry they have on unlimited is that it will literally be unlimited and people will just be out of control, but what we find is that the vast majority of customers just use it in normal use…  There are a small number of extremely heavy users, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a small number.

“I don’t think it’s quite as scary as people thought it was going to be. I won’t say it’s easy as a network provider to [do] – we’ve had to upgrade all of our network connections in the past couple of years by quite a large amount – but it’s all doable. We’ve been doing things like connecting directly to Google [to get faster connection speeds].

Whether or not Three’s decision to go it alone in offering unlimited 4G data to customers will pay off will only be seen once its full national network is up and running and fully loaded with customers. For customers in some parts of the country, that still looks quite a long way off. But when it does arrive, it’ll come with no premium, no new contract and no data limits – which isn’t bad for an operator with only 10 percent of the market.

Featured Image Credit – Ethan Miller/Getty Images