Three beats EE to launch UK’s first 4G mobile voice service

Three has launched a new service called 4G Super Voice that allows customers to make voice calls over 4G – improving indoor coverage

Three UK has introduced a new technology that it claims will allow mobile signals to travel much further into buildings and reach more rural areas, removing many of the current coverage “blackspots” across the country.

Although around 4.5 million people subscribe to Three’s 4G network for data services, they previously had to drop to 3G when they made regular phone calls. The downside of this was that 3G doesn’t penetrate very far into buildings, so indoor coverage was often poor.

The new service, called 4G Super Voice, will enable Three to carry voice calls over its 4G network, using voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) technology. This means that customers will be able to make calls, send texts and get online in places that previously had poor or no signal.

4G Super Voice is made possible by the addition of low-frequency 800 MHz spectrum to the Three network, following the 4G auction in 2013. The 800 MHz spectrum has shorter wavelengths than Three’s spectrum at 1800MHz, meaning it is better at penetrating through walls.

“Indoor coverage across the industry is always the hardest problem to solve, so all networks, whether it’s 2G, 3G or 4G will always have coverage blackspots,” said Bryn Jones, Chief Technology Officer at Three.

“The way I always think of it is, if you’re trying to get to sleep at night and there’s a party at the end of the street, the sound you hear is the bass, which is the low frequency. You don’t hear the singing, which is the high frequency.”

4G Super Voice is Three’s latest initiative to improve indoor coverage, which includes adding new cell sites to the network and launching its WiFi calling application, Three InTouch, last year.

Three said that 4G Super Voice already covers 50 per cent of the UK population for indoor coverage and more than three quarters of London, Edinburgh, Exeter and Birmingham.

It has also begun rolling out the technology in many other towns and cities across the country including Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, and hopes to extend it to 65 per cent of the country by the end of 2015.

Young male professional using a smartphoneIndoor mobile coverage is a common problem

Customers require a compatible handset to access the new technology, meaning it has an antenna that picks up 800MHz. This will include the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G4 at launch, with new devices – including the recently announced iPhone 6s and 6s Plus models – added later this year.

Customers will need to update their software to the latest version to access 4G Super-Voice. When the update is ready for a customer’s handset an alert will be sent, notifying them to update their operating system, by following the on-screen instructions.

Three UK is the first UK mobile operator to launch VoLTE, but it is not the only one working on the technology. Last year EE announced that it was working on enabling voice and text services over 4G, with a view to launching the service this summer.

O2 and Vodafone are also reportedly conducting trials of VoLTE in the UK. However, none of them have yet launched a commercial service.

“It is the most complex technical project that we’ve done in the network, because if you’re travelling, and you move from a 4G area to a 3G area, you have to transfer the call across without disconnecting it,” said Mr Jones.

“We took an agile approach, which was building a prototype, getting it working and then building upon that prototype, whereas a traditional network organisation would design it on paper first and then try to get it working. That approach helped us to remove all the technical gremlins early.”

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