Three plans to continue to be the awkward one

Three became the third telco to outline its ambitions in the 5G world this week, taking a slightly different approach to EE and Vodafone but it could prove to be the most interesting.

Although some have talked-down the long-term prospects of fixed wireless access, it does break down the barriers for those who want to enter the broadband market. At 5G World, we got the chance to speak to Ros Singleton, MD of UK Broadband, the subsidiary and smarts behind Three’s broadband challenge.

“Three is now a lot more of an established company, but they still like to disrupt,” said Singleton.

Three might not be a start-up anymore, but it still likes to maintain a position as a thorn in the side of the long-time established telcos. Just can your mind back to the ‘Make the Air Fair’ campaign of 2016, Three has always made a habit of doing business a little bit differently from the status quo.

The fixed wireless access (FWA) proposition could fit into this mould very effectively.

Singleton suggested that while there is an obsession with fibre as a means of broadband delivery, why shouldn’t the last mile be delivered over the air. A fibre spine with wireless wings is an interesting concept, and right now, it should be able to satisfy the intense data demands of 21st century consumers.

“Customers want broadband to work just like water,” said Singleton.

This idea perhaps undermines the ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mentality which has dominated the telecoms industry for decades. With 5G on the horizon and fibre promising lightning fast connectivity, you have to wonder how much of this horsepower would be redundant.

FWA is not an idea which has been heralded in with the emergence of 5G. It has existed as a product in the 4G-era and has offered a satisfactory experience. What Singleton believes is that customers just want broadband products to work, they don’t care about 100 Mbps. If 20 Mbps is all the customer needs, then why worry about delivering on top of that; its nothing more than window dressing.

5G of course helps to deliver more speed to the customer, but more importantly, it delivers a significant upgrade to capacity. For Singleton, this is a much more notable upgrade. The wider the pipe, the more data which can be delivered to consumers and the more reliable the connection is.

If you consider there are very few, or potential no applications available which would require 100 Mbps, customers will be more worried about whether a connection is stable, consistent and reliable. Capacity might be the ugly duckling of the connectivity family, but it can prove to be a game-changer when it comes to delivering on promised experience.

This is where Three could make a dent in the broadband space. Delivering an experience which satisfies the expectations of the consumer, but also adding in the element of simplicity.

The team are currently running a live-trial of the FWA proposition in Camden, with the aim to create an experience which undercuts that of rivals. For example, aside from reading a few instructions, the hope is that customers can simply open the box and plug-in a 5G router. It is supposed to be as simple as that. Customers won’t have to wait for an engineer, self-installation is the aim. The Camden trials will inform the team how this ambition can be achieved.

On the price side, Singleton was a bit shy, and the same could be said about speeds. The aim to at least match the performance and price of competitors, we suspect there might be an undercut, remaining true to the Three playbook, but the idea of simple installation, rolling contracts and relevant experience is how the team plan to differentiate.

This is supposed to be a challenge to the status quo. The team are not targeting any of the competitors in particular, though it is a very broad approach to FWA, the team is launching in 25 cities by the end of the year. Most importantly, Three has a track-record of being a pain; this is a product which is well worth keeping an eye on.