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An expensive example of Three’s stupid data policies

This is one of those posts that’s about to get really, really popular across the mobile operator community. I know this, because previous ones on similar subjects have phenomenally high readership rates from the various operator areas such as Newbury, Maidenhead, Slough and so on. And executives call me about them too.

It is with this in mind that I have spunked £120 for your reading pleasure. It wasn’t deliberate, but since I’ve spunked it, I might as well write about it, yes? And therefore extract some value from the bollocks experience.

It’s also a really, really useful example of how operators are handling the data crunch. Sometimes folk don’t believe me when I’m jumping about on stage at events or briefing investment bankers about how dumb the infrastructure (and, often, the thinking and execution) is at operator level.

Right, let’s get to it.

I’ve moved house. There’s no internet connection — obviously — we’re waiting for BT to dance about doing the jiggerypokery that they do in order to make the broadband work.

In the meantime, I had a brilliant idea: Use the MiFi.

For me, that means using my 3 MiFi unit. It’s the one I rave about all the time. Regular readers know this — I do rave about it. (“Three MiFi success yet again: I love it“)

I’ve been using it perfectly fine for, I reckon, a year. Witness, for example, the post I did a few months back explaining why Premier Inn (and Spectrum Interactive) didn’t get any business from me thanks to my 3 MiFi service.

I’ve pummelled the unit. I’m sure I’ve used hundreds of megabytes in a single day. I’m sure I’ve used upwards of a gigabyte in a single day.

I’ve not once had a problem with the SIM.

I bought the MiFi unit last year in Richmond. I think I paid £59 for it, including a tenner’s worth of data (1GB). I went through that across the first month so I bought a few more gigs… and then I decided to take the SIM from my Nokia N86 and use that in the MiFi instead. This is because I’ve unlocked the N86 — and often, I use it without the SIM. I reasoned that I might as well stick it in the MiFi and get some use out of it.

I’m sure I read somewhere that you’re not quite meant to do this. I think it was Ben Smith who pointed out that there’s a rather huge inconsistency with the Three policy. (See point 1 in his overview).

Either way, I stuck the SIM in the MiFi and it’s been working perfectly for about a year.

Over the weekend I looked like a Demi God by supplying internet to my new household via the 3 MiFi. I just stuck it into a plug in the kitchen and it provided connectivity to iPads, MacBooks and even my other Three iPhone. (This is currently supplying the internet because of my borked MiFi SIM.)

My wife was delighted.

Wee Archie — all of 15 months — was supremely impressed at the ability for the Family iPad (WiFi-only) to magically update with new apps to keep him amused now-and-again. He’s teething so anything that keeps his mind off that and enables us to get food into him is a good idea.

I was pretty impressed myself.

The speeds have been near Desktop level. It’s been interesting watching my wife simply pick up her iPad and start using the internet across the weekend, without giving a thought to the actual bearer. It worked well enough that she didn’t notice the difference. This is a testament to Three’s super data network. I find it phenomenally good.

I think we’d used a few hundred meg but the time my wife decided to download an episode of One Tree Hill. Or something like that. She did ask if it would be OK. I said, ‘sure’ — knowing it would be slow, but knowing that a) Three could handle that and b) it would only be 500 odd meg.

Alas my wife fell for the iTunes trick: The first results they present to you are always the £2.49 HD episodes, aren’t they? 1.4 gigabytes.

I only found this out when my wife checked the download to see it was almost finished.

“Geez, that’s quite a lot,” I thought.

It downloaded fine.

I was very impressed.

I made yet another, “Three is flipping brilliant!” note to myself mentally and went about opening boxes and unpacking stuff.

I didn’t give a thought to the cost.

This is Three. Them of the truly unlimited data offering! Truly! They mean it!

Just, not for me.

Not on the price plan the N86 is on.

That was my critical mistake.

I only found out the problem when, today, my wife complained that she couldn’t use the internet.

“It’s saying something about running out of credit,” she said, over the phone.

“You what?” I said, knowing the SIM is running on a monthly contract. For hours I was convinced she’d some how put one of our PAYG SIMS into the MiFi by mistake some how.

I discovered the reality this evening.

Here’s the chronology that I’ve reconstructed from the sodding text messages that arrived into the MiFi warning me that I was exceeding my usage.

We start off with a warning message on Saturday evening:


From 3: You’ve nearly used your internet allowance. Check your remaining allowance for free at My3

This is very sensible. Provided I’m reading the text messages. But I’m not.

Now let’s get to the money texts. Here’s the warning that I’m about to get billed:

13.08 Sunday:

From 3: You’ve reached your internet allowance. You may be charged for further internet use. Check your usage free at My3

Right that’s not at all helpful. I mean, it’s useful to know. But what’s the sodding point in texting it to me? Why not DISPLAY something? Why not make me CLICK a button to continue during my web activity?


You have spent £ 2.61 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobil


You have spent £ 8.43 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobil

This does show the speed of Three’s network, both in terms of data, and in terms of billing updates. Anyway, one second later I got this…


You have spent £ 17.74 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobi

The billing system has noticed something might not quite be right, but things carry on. 43 seconds later, they sent this:


From 3:You have nearly reached your credit limit. If you would like more information or want to make a payment please call 333 or

A few minutes now pass as the system lets me carry on regardless..


You have spent £ 23.56 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobi

Now for a big jump:


You have spent £ 41.01 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobi

The outstanding balance has doubled in a few minutes. This is clearly a nice chunk of One Tree Hill downloading. Things are moving so fast that even the SMS delivery servers can’t react fast enough. One second later, this message arrived — rather late:


You have spent £ 20.07 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mobi

And then it’s all good for another few minutes as the billing engine carries on counting the pounds from me before declaring:


You have spent £ 113.36 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mob

And the final text? For some inexplicable reason, that arrived almost twenty minutes later:


You have spent £ 118.02 on internet since 02/09/2011 You could save money with an internet add-on. Click here for info http://mob

And that’s it.

Job done.

For some reason, the system decided not to bother texting me after that — despite the fact that I happily used data from it across the evening, although perhaps not much, given the fact that the final additional data bill is almost £120:

Screen Shot 2011 09 05 at 21 34 06

I really didn’t expect a bill from Three.

I thought they’d actually given up on this ‘fair usage policy’ stuff and actually just given everyone unlimited data. I just assumed (“makes an ass out of you and me”) that this SIM contract would carry over.

My real problem is the gratuitous way in which the company’s systems just billed me. I take full responsibility. I will most definitely pay the bill. I’m just seriously disappointed that the only mechanism they thought to employ to warn me was text messaging.

It’s OK.

It’s just not very smart, is it?

The average customer would go absolutely spare at such an occurrence.

The experience really does bring home to me how shit the operators — well, Three in this instance — are at dealing with this kind of usage.

Don’t just send me a text.

How stupid is that? Oh, by all means warn me, but what about the smart thinking? What about the up selling opportunities?

KNOWING that I’m on a price plan that has a defined limit, why didn’t you switch off my internet connection and redirect all browser requests and ask me to specifically approve the STUPID amount of money I spent?

Why didn’t you use a bit of intelligence in the system? “Ewan, it looks like you’re using a lot — and, you know what, you don’t have much headroom in your allowance, so why don’t you buy a bolt-on for this week?”


Here’s the screenshot of the page my wife was talking about:

Screen Shot 2011 09 05 at 21 36 50

I don’t know why this wasn’t shown to me (or us) some way through 1pm on Sunday when we were already running up a bill.

I could have bought almost 5x £25 7GB options for the amount they’ve charged me.

I find this level of incompetence extremely irritated.

Yes I should have swapped to an unlimited price plan. I should. That’s my fault. Yes I should have monitored my data usage closely, again, my fault.

Whoever designed and manages the Three data billing policies failed me, utterly. You’re meant to manage the customer, right? Come on, this is donkey stuff. All customers are inherently stupid. And we want to avoid them phoning us up SCREAMING for the CEO’s email address to make a complaint, yes? So make the billing system and ESPECIALLY the bit that the customer interacts with waterproof. Stupidproof.

By not dealing with this issue — by allowing it to happen for whatever reason — Three succeeded in winding up an otherwise very happy customer.

I understand that the cause of the problem was me. I expected more from you, Three. I expected some smarts in the billing team to have identified this possibility and protect me from the shit and, most importantly, as a customer, isolate me from having to deal with exceptions like this.

How simple would it have been on Sunday afternoon?

“What’s this?” my wife would say, handing the iPad to me.

“Ah, yeah it’s ok — just tap on the 7GB option as we’ll be using a lot over the next week or so,” I’d have replied.



  1. You want businesses to protect people from doing stupid things?!
    At what point did the human race decided that nothing was their fault anymore and automatically look for someone else to blame for all their mistakes?
    I’m sure you’re mad at yourself for making the mistake & making a misplaced assumption (we’ve all done it), but take it like a man!

  2. You want businesses to protect people from doing stupid things?!
    At what point did the human race decided that nothing was their fault anymore and automatically look for someone else to blame for all their mistakes?
    I’m sure you’re mad at yourself for making the mistake & making a misplaced assumption (we’ve all done it), but take it like a man!

  3. Er, no. I was expecting readers to take this in the wider context. The problem isn’t me. I can take it, I can pay it, I understand the mistake.

    My problem is when the average normal mobile user (“normob”) comes into contact with this kind of experience. Billshock is a huge, huge, huge issue for the industry and helping normobs avoid doing stupid things is, I’m sure you’ll agree, really important for the development of the marketplace. Otherwise they’ll avoid it like the plague.

  4. No, but the argument many of us have made is that a one-sided relationship where the user has no clear way of knowing their actual usage tied to a ‘per megabyte’ charging model is dumb – for both parties.

    What other business punishes customers for buying more of a product? Why not make it a better experience so they want to do it again. After my first mistake I setup a bunch of controls to try and prevent it reoccurring when in fact I would have happily spent more money if I could have purchased more data at the ‘going rate’. 

  5. Hmmm, not sure the marketplace needs that much help to be honest.
    I think the inconsistencies in technology and it’s pricing are more of an issue to the non-technical.

    I find it hard to explain to my parents generation that 3G costs 1000s times more than wifi. As far as they’re concerned they’re downloading the same film on the same iPad and it’s still not plugged into anything, so why is there no limit for one for £10 a month and yet take the iPad down the road and it could cost over £100 for the same thing. (Im not sure I see why there’s such a differential to be honest).

    In fact it’s such a difference, warnings received could be perceived as mistakes “surely it can’t cost that much, so that must have been a message received in error), and assumption claims another victim.

  6. Also, note my favourite gotcha in that screenshot… Pre-pay customers can buy more data bundles – the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bundle costing the same as the first. Pay monthly customers can’t do anything except pay overages unti they get cut-off.

    Even if you call to upgrade your tariff, that doesn’t become effective until the next billing cycle / month.

  7. Plenty of businesses do “punish” consumers in a similar way, although predominantly utilities & service industries.
    Must be something about intangible products that makes them think different rules apply.

  8. I understand where you are coming from, but most people wouldn’t have taken the sim out of their phone and stuck it in a MiFi, and therefore got the text’s warning them of their excessive usage.
    Which is probably the reason that sticking a sim out of your phone into a MiFi is a breach of Three’s terms and conditions.
    You’ll be wanting Shell to warn you when they think you are driving to many miles next.

  9. Yes… but…

    They may have stuck it in an Android phone with super-simple WiFi hotspot capability… or they may have bought it SIM free and stuck it in any kind of device (MiFi, dongle, tablet, laptop etc).

    I actually did the latter and got all the nasty warning SMS alerts but the T&Cs only say you can’t swap from the type of device you bought the SIM in… there’s nothing (I can find) about what you may (or may not) use SIM-free contracts for*.

    *I’m chasing them for info on this. I may be wrong. YMMV etc etc.

  10. Althouth of course if you’d used it in a phone with hotspot capability, you might have noticed the texts 😉
    As I said, see where you are coming from, used to use my sim in my MiFi before iOS had easy hotspot function.

  11. If you think that’s bad, I DARE you to try and cancel one of your Three contracts. You really should try it, and write about it.

    I tried to cancel my MiFi contract last month as I lost the gadget, and it was the most horrific and traumatising experience I’ve ever had with a network operator (and I’ve had quite a few bad experiences with operators over the years, including bills in the thousand pound range from Voda). After asking Three to cancel the contract and explaining why and refusing any cross-selling or upgrades, I actually had to scream down the line at one point to get the drone at the other end to stop telling me how I could upgrade or pass my contract on to another family member in order to get a free netbook.

    After complaining, their response was “OFCOM require us to make you aware of other offers”. Rather cheeky distortion of the rules and regs, I’d say.

    And the best bit? The contract is *still* running, because they force you to wait until the end of the next billing period rather than allowing you to cancel and pay up (including any penalty month) in one go.

    I shall NEVER use Three again, and suggest everyone else is extremely wary of their utterly broken ‘customer retention’ practices.

  12. I hear you…

    In fact back in the Really Mobile days we had a video planned where one person would ring Three to cancel an account and the others would get a taxi their Maidenhead HQ with a hand-written letter. We expected the letter to win the ‘race’. In fact… I may even see if we can’t give this a try some time as I miss the old videos…

  13. True… I suspect you’re right about that.

    Unfortunately Three do use the same system on their ‘proper’ data accounts too (albeit with a £50 cut-off). I’ve missed the SMSes and hit the limit a few times (although I’ve got better at managing it now).

  14. Obviously it’s your own fault for not checking your allowance.. but still – I agree with what you say about SMS’s not serving as an adequate warning when you’re using a Mi-Fi. All you know about them is a tiny little icon on the tiny little screen that in theory you don’t actually look at. 

    Three don’t offer ‘All you can Eat Data’ on their MiFi’s, probably to stop allowing people to pummel them, which is probably sensible. Although I very much doubt Three could differentiate between someone putting a phone AYCE data SIM in their MiFi. I certainly didn’t get any kind of telling off for doing it myself 😉

  15. What irks is the utter difference between £ per byte in the allowance and £ per byte out of it. In what other industry if you end up using more you pay more on a pro-rata basis? Even that hoary old industry of energy the rate goes down after so many kw. It smacks of penalties whereby tremendous margin can be gained for customers mistakes which is why customers find it so irritating.

    I was tripped up by three myself when abroad with a brand new phone. I thought I was downloading a podcast on the airport wifi – somehow the phone lost the signal, attached to T-mobile 3G and before you know it I had “spent” £30 on roughly 30MB file that I never listened to anyway cos I stopped the download when I got the fists sms saying I had spent £4.23 (the remaining texts came in over the next few minutes after the download stopped).

    I did complain to three and they offered me £10 but I am inclined to take it as a complaint to ofcom which I will probably not win but at least can show up in the ofcom stats which the operators don’t like.

    Data charging is something Ofcom needs to get a proper grip on because the operators have such a sweet scam going on……..

  16. As do T-Mo UK (for streaming and larger file uploads). It’s a very good idea ruined by T-Mo’s insisting on calling this ‘unlimited’ (which it’s not) and inability to explain which things will be throttled and which won’t.

  17. Oh dear! I always recieve a text so say I’ve got 20% remaining. Yeh I’m with you on that that a text is a little annoying. I think we should get something like a pop up window just for saying that we are running low on data. But None of these operators give us options for add ons. They either done have add ons for us Pay Monthly people for extra data or if they do they like to hide them on the website! It feels as if our 4 Networks don’t listen to their customers, and what we need/want to make our lives eaiser, better, with our online or even mobile experience. I don’t think it’s your fault at all Ewan.

  18. you are an idiot. the 3 policy you quoted, which you wrongly say is inconsistent “1.Three: Unlimited data for £25pm (for 1 month). No overages. Must be used via a handset1.” the line “must be used via a handset” is clearly there, and if you use your sim card in a mobile wifi device, you are not using the data allowance via a handset, so therefore you are obviously going to be using up more data than you ever would were you to stick to using 3G browsing on the handset! not only that you clown, but you weren’t even on the policy which you have quoted, and if the simcard was in your handset you would have received the warning texts!!!! maybe instead of blaming networks for you being an absolute imbecile, stop crying about it and be accountable for your own actions!!! 

  19. You’re absolutely right. What I did above was record my own reactions — it’s rather useful for understanding and observing the realities of what your average consumer experiences. As a thoroughly experienced mobile industry veteran, rarely does this kind of thing ever happen to me as I know what I’m doing!

  20. Just ran into Three’s idiotic policies myself. Bought an Phone4 on contract for youngest son a year ago In my name as he was under 18 at the time, on condition that he would pay us monthly to cover bill.

    He then moved back to the States, and left us with the bill. In order to rescue something from the money we were now paying out, i used the microsim in my Tab7 and sold the Iphone to recoup some of the loss. Worked out quite well.

    A year later (and still with a year to go), i am going to sell my Tab7 to get a Nexus7. No 3g on the Nexus7, no problem, i’ll put the 3 microsim in the 3 (E585) Mifi i have and use that so the Nexus7 can connect when out and about…

    Or i won’t. Turns out that 3 won’t let you use a phone sim in a dongle, and vice versa. I CAN use the sim in a phone and tether all day, every day (its on the One Plan), essentially using said phone as a mifi. I can’t however, use a mifi as a mifi.

    I can use the mifi as a mifi, but only if i use the sim that came with it. Topping up £10 per month to use a data connection when i am already paying out £30 per month for a data connection makes ZERO sense to me, but after a long twitter conversation with Three Support, i’m getting nowhere and having to accept the idea of paying out for another year for a sim i can’t (or won’t be able to once the Tab7 is gone) use.

  21. Will they let you downgrade the contract? Or could you get hold of a cheapo Android phone and run it as a MiFi unit?

  22. Yeah, i could. I have an older Desire kicking around. But that’s not the point. I can’t use a three sim in a three Mifi, but i CAN use it for exactly the same use, as long as it’s in a phone. ?!?!?!

    I will ask about downgrading, or possibly having the remainder of the contract served out as mobile broadband only (if they switch the sim). But giving their general level of UNhelpfulness so far, i’m not holding much hope…

  23. Yeah expect a negative response from them. It’s just how they do things. I don’t agree with it at all. I think the Desire route could be the way ahead. Crazy…

  24. Its not even that i want to carry the Nexus7 around, very often. I have a Note for day to day ‘out and about’ usage. Since i got the Note my Tab7 is strictly a home device, so the Nexus7 would be an upgraded home device.

    But i wanted to be able to make the most of a bad situation by being able to use the sim in the Mifi. For instance, if my Notes Orange (soon to be T-Mob) signal got low and i wanted an alternate signal source (The Mifi has a much better signal capturing, holding ability as that’s its only job. Using a phone as a Mifi (probably) won’t be as solid.), or if i get an Eye-Fi card in my camera. At least try to get some value for money out of this contract.

  25. hi all, can anyone tell me pls what is quicker to use for data on three network is the mifi or to use the phone like a hotspot?

  26. I have a soon to be ending ‘unlimited internet’ phone contract with 3 which has allowed me to thether on 3g without charge to tablets and netbooks for almost two years. I decided i would take 3’s stated free 4g for all customers at face value and bought myself a 4g handset as the battery had packed up on my original 3g handset. I carried on my usual internet and tethering behaviour for a couple of weeks until 3 blocked internet access to my new handset via the sim. Browsers displayed the message about putting my sim back in the phone it came with. No warning texts or browser messages. Just an out of the blue cut off of service when I rely heavily on it. Over 5hours of calls to the most appalling ‘customer services’ and i still have no internet and no credible explanation of why I can’t use my own handset. I am genuinely stunned by how badly I was treated. 3 seems to have become adept at turning otherwise happy customers into extremely unhappy ones. I’m not renewing the contract and taking my business elsewhere, even if it costs me more for less data and mins etc.

  27. i only use my mobile sim if its on pay as u go that way u get a full months internet for £15 Simples

  28. just plug ya phone in n use ur mobile as a modem!! 3 piss me off tho 7gb used to last a month now it lasts like 2 days if im lucky

  29. I have been caught out with this Three internet madness too, and I consider myself to be intelligent, wise and stingy. What gets us is on Three payg, 10 pounds top up can disappear instantly if you just step over the free internet allowance. We don’t get any alerts, apart from sms’s that arrive some time after you have used say 5 pounds of internet. I mean you get the 5 pounds of internet message when you have consumed 10 pounds. Instead we should get a blocking page advising the free allowance has been used and we can either continue at a very expensive rate or buy an add on, rather than Three just consuming all the credit.

    Which brings me onto another issue. In this modern day and age, phone companies should be providing itemised billing online for payg users. What I mean is its a mystery where your credit has gone, and you should be able to work it out from online rather than having to call the call centre (in India) to find out where all your credit has gone. Three also plays this game.

    So, we are going to dump Three because of its mindless ripoffs for internet on payg and take our business elsewhere.

  30. Another good one is the contract allowance minutes. They are free/included.
    Three charges pay as you go minutes at 3p/min.

    However, if you go over your contract allowance minutes, you do not get charged at pay as you go rates, you get charged at 35p/min, over 11 times more. I haven’t been stung by that, but again, I know somebody who suddenly got charged ~£100 extra for 3.5h of phone calls and I find that outrageous..


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