03. 03. 2023

20 Years of 3G in the UK

by Wren Wood

The year is 2003. The Black Eyed Peas are topping the charts with the single “Where Is the Love?" while the mobile scene is dominated by simple voice and SMS from existing telcos BT Cellnet (O2), Orange, One2One (T-Mobile) and Vodafone Airtouch (Vodafone). A new mobile network operator is preparing to enter the stage and conquer the British market.

Twenty years ago today, Hutchison 3G launched the UK’s first 3G network, using the brand Three (stylised as “3”). The launch marked a turning point in the UK market - the introduction of 3G technology was expected to revolutionise mobile communications, providing faster internet speeds, video calling, and other multimedia services.

Three's Launch Logo

Three’s original logo from launch in 2003

It’s often forgotten that Three was a tech start-up swimming against the tide of the dot-com bubble burst with limited resources to deliver what cynics described as a pointless upgrade to the already perfectly functional 2G networks being delivered by existing operators. However, this was actually an advantage when building the network; it was a completely fresh start with total focus on delivering 3G with no legacy equipment to support or executives to convince of the benefits. 

The main focus was video calling. Previous attempts at video calls on 2G devices such as the Orange Videophone never achieved mainstream consumer support, whereas all of Three’s launch phones natively supported video calling. This was a big push by Canning Fok, who was Group Managing Director of Hutchison Whampoa (majority stakeholder of Three), who told the development teams that two way video had to work or they should go home.

Patricia Hewitt with the e606

Patricia Hewitt MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, makes a public mobile video call over Three's network to Canning Fok -  Image from Hutchison Whampoa in 2003.

The Mobile Phone Museum caught up with Peter Simpson, Director of Handset Technology at Three from 2000 to 2004. He recalled matters were not straightward at the network; “it's not called the bleeding edge for without reason”. Every aspect was being developed as the standards were still being ratified leading to some interesting interpretations. There was a massive focus on end to end interoperability testing, particularly as Three was taking a walled garden approach to content.

The three handsets that were ready for launch were the NEC e606, e808, and the Motorola A830. Both manufacturers were keen to push into the UK market, especially as they had lost large amounts of market share to Nokia, the dominant handset manufacturer at the time.

The Launch Devices - NEC e606, e808 and Motorola A830

The launch devices: NEC e606, e808 and Motorola A830

Simpson said that the 03/03/03 date was decided very late in the timeline - the original launch was aimed for Q2'2002 but this got pushed back to Q4'2002 and then into Q1'2003. The magic date was set and pressure was really put on across the company to make it a reality.

Jumping back to present day, Three is still a leading player in the UK telecoms market. However, the era of 3G is coming to an end - it plans to switch off the 3G network by the end of 2024.

Thank you to Peter Simpson, Peter Clarke and David Wheatley for their contributions to this blog.