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It’s official: 3’s data network run by hamsters; string [Fixed]

I am now regularly based in Richmond-Upon-Thames.

And what a flipping nightmare it is from a mobile connectivity perspective.

Vodafone struggles to get anything more than Edge. And even when there’s an Edge signal, the 1.5k throughput is sufficient to query Google and nothing else.

Total unmitigated rubbish.

My solution was to refer to my Three handset and find that HSPA+ is rocking across the Richmond valley.

I went out on the second day of working in the town and bought a 3 MiFi unit — the new one, that I reviewed recently.

I patted myself on the back. Multiple times. Total genius, I was. I bougth a gig of data and used about 400mb of it across the week surfing away almost at broadband speeds.

I even connected my Vodafone BlackBerry to the MiFi hotspot. I found that especially galling given the stupid amount of money I pay to Vodafone each month. [Vodafone, you’re the subject of another post: Do you seriously mean to tell me that your engineers have spent 6 months trying to get the mast working beyond Edge?]

It’s not like I’m talking about an area located somewhere in North Wales. Richmond-Upon-Thames is 9.2 miles from the Houses of Parliament. It’s as urban as you get.

A few people around me noted the Three MiFi and actually popped down to the local Three shop and picked up one. We’ve all been having a super time. Three’s got some new customers (who otherwise wouldn’t have given a damn about them — after all, the company still suffers from a massive image problem, something I’ve done my best to counter).

Everything was good until yesterday. All of a sudden, the Three data network just stopped working.

Vodafone’s network carried on at a literal snail’s pace.

Three just said NO SIGNAL on my (new) Three iPhone 4 and my MiFi.

I gave it a few minutes.


I waited an hour or so.


A colleague phoned up Three and gave our postcode.

Apparently they knew about the issue.

The afternoon arrived. Nothing.

I recognised that I’d come to depend on Three.

What a mistake to make.

The network was non-existent for most of yesterday.

This morning, nothing.

Mid-way through the day, my MiFi unit suddenly found a signal, send/received 115k of data and … boom… promptly returned to zero signal.

It’s almost been 48-hours.

Again, it’s not like we’re in deepest darkest Wales, where it takes 11 hours via especially equipped Land Rover to reach the mast.

My expectation is that Three is running a carrier grade network.

Carrier grade means… well, let’s see what Wikipedia reckons:

In telecommunication, a “carrier grade” or “carrier class” refers to a system, or a hardware or software component that is extremely reliable, well tested and proven in its capabilities. Carrier grade systems are tested and engineered to meet or exceed “five nines” high availability standards, and provide very fast fault recovery through redundancy (normally less than 50 milliseconds).

To be clear, for most of today it’s been possible to make a telephone call with the Three network. And even send an SMS.

But data?


Absolutely not: About a billion miles away from ‘carrier grade‘. More like ‘hamster grade‘.

If I get to Richmond tomorrow and find there is STILL no data connectivity in the area, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do.

I can’t quite imagine how I’d react to a mobile service provider that can’t provide basic functionality to a reasonable service level, let alone ‘carrier grade’.

If it doesn’t work tomorrow, I will:

– demand a refund of my Three WiFi
– cancel my newly initiated 24-month iPhone 4 contract on Three
– cancel my half-spent 18-month Nokia N86 on Three
– cancel my Three USB dongle

A back-of-the-fag-packet calculation reveals I spend about £1,400 a year with Three alone.

Fix it, Three. Fix it.

Update: Well, I’m pleased to say that Three picked up the post and discovered a fault with the local base station the next morning.  It was back and operational within a few hours.  Good news.


  1. As far as I’m concerned all mobile networks are “best effort”, not “carrier grade” – and priced accordingly.

    If you want a service level agreement for your data connection then buy a leased line….

  2. Righto <rolls up sleeves>

    Do you have *any* idea just how mind-numbingly complicated a mobile network is?

    No. No you do not. Nor do the vaaaaaaast majority of your dear readers. Nor do I. I know the BTS bit because I used to build cellsites and install/commission them. Even then we needed subject matter specialists for each unit. Sometimes there were literally a handful of people on the *planet* who seriously knew how it all fitted together. I once paid a CDMA specialist $300 an hour to solve a problem with an EVDO rollout I was managing. He was – literally – the only guy in the world we could get.

    I'd say maybe 0.000000000001% of the population have even the faintest clue just how much computer hardware, software and physical machinery goes into setting up and maintaining a mobile phonecall.

    The BTS. The backhaul, the core interfaces. The core itself. The SS7/PSTN interfaces. There are boxes involved that I've never even heard of and I've been in the industry 15 years.

    3Uk's network is not run by hamsters and you bloody well know it. O2's, yes.

    Now maybe the 3UK CS should be better joined-up to the field techs. But that's a different argument to what you are postulating.


  3. Makes me laugh! I went to an IBM press conference a few months ago where Darren Silvester, Information Management Architect at Hutchinson 3G told us that he'd built this amazingly expensive and whizzy Business Analytics system. The system according to Darren would enable 3 to be able to give callers up-to-the-minute information on signal problems, and would enable Three to get problems fixed before they resulted in churn. Yeah right Darren! It's not worked in my experience, I spent a fruitless few hours talking to clueless call centre people last week about my iPhone 4 (see my rant on for more details). The iPhone 4 has now gone back – loss to Three about £500 a year. oops #fail

  4. While I like having some explanation and bit of detail, I'm still with Ewan. I, frankly, don't care how complicated it all is because it's been built and sold to me to do a job. If it can't do that job, or it's too hard to maintain, find another way or don't sell it to me (or sell it to me really cheap with the caveat that it might be a bit crap sometimes…).

  5. So this is what gets me: your car does not work all the time. No cars do. Do you stop driving? Your ISP does not work all the time. No ISP's do. Do you stop using the internet?

    I could go on to list every_single_technology on the planet.

    If you are – in the face of all evidence to the contrary, like statistically significant polls – going to jump provider because of a very geographically isolated issue affecting part of your service, then you will spend your entire life being disappointed and logged into uswitch hunting for the elusive perfect vendor. They don't exist. Stuff breaks. The more complex it is, the longer it might take to find and fix. Get over it.

    Less than 5 years ago we were living behind walled gardens with 200kbps max, paying hundreds of pounds of you strayed over very low data caps.

    Reality check please everyone.

    p.s. I'm 100% certain in the contract you signed up to that this sort of thing would be clearly spelt out. If you aren't prepared to accept very rare isolated outages like this then don't accept the T&C.

  6. Hasn't the real issue been clouded? Are the networks exclusively employing hamsters or are there guinea pigs in the system doing the same job for less pay. Equal rights for all small furry animals!

  7. Can't argue with you there, Mike. And I don't plan to stop using it. All I'm saying is that consumers, for the most part, don't want to know how complex it is, they just want it to work. I'm only playing devil's advocate – I actually found your explanation very interesting 😉

  8. Mike, I'm agreed with Mark. As a software developer for 27 years I know complex stuff (and yes, I'm sure a mobile data network is vastly more complicated than any software I've written 🙂 ). But as Mark says, that's not the point and it's not an excuse.

    Mobile networks love to give us all the marketing bullshit about unlimited data and multi-gig speeds, and they love to sign us up in legally binding contracts and they LOVE to take our money.

    And that sort of behaviour means I'm afraid that we the customers have EVERY right to love to haul the mobile networks over hot coals, grab them by the balls and twist hard, or whatever, when they fail as they so clearly have here, and have for me multiple times on T-Mobile's pathetic attempt at back-end mobile data infrastructure.

    So….how about the mobile networks start being fairer to the consumer in what they promise, and what they give back when they fail as they so frequently do? How about saying actually they'll make best efforts but data is NOT unlimited, you will NOT always get multi-gig speeds – you might get GPRS if you're lucky, how about a bit of software for people's PC's and mobiles that monitors available bandwidth in a fair way, reports back to the network, and if the user is trying to get high speeds and failing it refunds the customer 0.1p for every minute they fail, and if they fail a certain amount per month the contract is legally broken and the consumer can go elsewhere immediately if they wish?

    You want fairer treatment for networks? Give consumers fairer treatment first – they're the ones keeping the mobile networks alive after all.

  9. Wow, some seriously unrealistic expectations there Alex.

    I bet you £100 that every contract you've ever signed with any MNO or ISP has a clause that says that service is *not* guaranteed. I bet you £100 that you've never been sold a MNO or ISP service where they *promise* always-on 'multi-gig speeds'.

    Why do you think that for £20/month (or whatever) you deserve the moon on a stick? MNO's are constantly swapping the 'Best 3G / CS / whatever' crown. This should tell you that no-one is consistently better than the others, and they are all dealing with the same issues:

    The laws of physics WRT RF propagation, modulation codes, antenna design
    Planning laws WRT siting of BTS and antenna selection
    Financial theory WRT charging a reasonable amount to customers and then investing in & running a flipping complex, expensive machine
    Human behaviour WRT how, when and where people want to do stuff on mobiles
    Sod's law WRT stuff breaking

    Mobile network design is all about balancing dense capacity with widespread coverage. As things like 2G band refarming and newer modulation schemes evolve we will see a jump in performance over the next 5 years that eclipses the last 5. But people will still complain that they can't get 100Mb/sec in Little Whinging, Surrey, only a crap 20MB/sec. That their HD Picoprojector conference call was only at 1080p and they couldn't see their client's cute PA's freckles clearly.

    I'd love to see you/Ewan in charge of an MNO, having to make the call to invest another £5Bn to double your site count and £1Bn on cloning a horde of Stephen Frys as your CS reps. Then try to sell it for £100/month to make a return.

    Oh. Er, turns out people are happier paying £20 and having very infrequent outages. Better hang on to that £6Bn.

    That's life.

  10. Unfortunately for the telcos and infrastructure providers like MNOs, consumers do not generally understand, and consumers will generally want something for nothing.

    Back then, I remember a time when BT brought out 512Kbit ADSL, and for a cost of £35/month and the privilege for always on “broadband”, I thought this was tremendous. It was £20 for an 'unlimited' dial up connection, but when you can get 10x the bandwidth and a tenth of the latency for less than double the cost, it was a nobrainer. It was like magic. The thought of having multi-megabit bandwidth had not even occurred to me at this point, in fact some ISPs just ran off 10mbit leased lines!

    Nowadays you can get a so called up-to-8Mb broadband connection for less than 7 quid a month (or free even), and consumers will moan about the slow speeds and constant issues. Fair enough if these are the only options, but when you can get something that's reasonably solid and at up to triple the bandwidth for 20 quid plus, then it's another no-brainer decision if you need your connection to be somewhat usable – if you know better that is. Heck, there are ISPs that offer better contention ratios that do guarantee you service and bandwidth – like business tariffs (or leased lines!) – but again, most consumers don't want to pay for this, nor do they really need it. Again, cost typically wins most consumers who do not understand how it works.

    Now whilst I have been going on a tangent about how consumers will just moan about anything even though things have improved over time, I'll go on another tangent relating to Mike's rant about the issues with sending signals over the air.

    Ask a serious gamer to choose between a top notch spanking wireless mouse, or one with a cord that would clutter the desk somewhat. He would choose cords. Wireless mice will at some random point in time when you are in the middle of an important tournament, bugger up. It'll stutter for a brief moment as the signals bounce off the wrong wall. Or it lags. Or it lags generally. Or the batteries run out. Or the signal interferes with something.

    Ask a power user how they would like to hook up their fileserver, or some financial institution with real time access needs if they would use wireless connections even if security could be guaranteed. Frankly most of the time, if not all, they would choose to use cables. Cables are a physical link, no real chance of interference, very simple.

    Wireless signals bugger up. Look at your wifi router when you have several heavy sessions going on. Look at getting decent bandwidth when there are several dozen other access points around you. Look at Steve Jobs telling his audience to switch off their wifi when he's trying to show off the phone with the amazing antenna. Look at getting bluetooth to pair up with other things.

    Granted, they work most of the time, and this includes mobile networks. But I just cannot expect it to work well all of the time. When it's so difficult to have different wireless technologies working 99.999% of the time, mobile networks with the ability to switch you to different cell stations on the fly as you travel from one end of the country to another without you noticing (too much) is like Magic, and that's something people don't really appreciate enough.

  11. Being a mobile operator is always going to be a fruitless task. You can't please 100% of the people 100% of the time. This is why operational statistics are generally based on averages rather than absolutes.
    One thing that does strike me is that reading through your post, for the period it worked, you received a far superior service from three than the other operators. So if you average that out with the amount of work you were able to achieve before and after the service resumed did you technically have a better or worse service. Take this average over a year and see where we get.

    I agree it is incredibly annoying when services you depend on go down, but is this not our failing for increased reliance on services that can and will fail yet refusing to provide adequate backup solutions. This is the reason I always have a PAYG mobile card with another operator. I depend on these services so I make sure I can operate when my provider has a problem. I have worked in IT for a number of years designing and Architecting high availability services. I would never put my sole reliance on one provider of anything regardless of the Carrier grade promises. Accidents and problems will happen. Even the carriers themselves will generally pass out redundant essential systems to other carriers for BCP purposes in the event of an failure / outage.

  12. This whole three bad image stems from an incident that happened 10 years ago. When they first launched their service it was over subscribed and it was impossible to make or receive a call.

    The issue slowly faded away over a course of 6 months, probably as the network was being upgraded. Many people left but I was one of the few that stuck with them.

    Why was three oversubscribed? because it was the first UK operator to supply 3G, that is video calls, mobile data and picture messaging.

    Having been with three since the beginning I can honestly say that it has been absolutely amazing since the launch incident. There has been 1 or 2 24 hour data outages but I put that down to upgrades. It’s not even worth phoning up and complaining about, just let them do their jobs.

    People who complain about 3 are usually other network users who are envious of the fact we’ve had completely unlimited internet usage for the last 6 years on three.

    In a way I’m glad that 3 has a bad rep, the low demand has kept prices low. 


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