Three Becomes The Fourth Carrier To Throw Its Hat Into The LTE Ring, Will Offer Price-Busting 4G On 3G Tariffs Starting In December

On the heels of Vodafone and O2 this evening turning on their LTE networks to compete against EE in 4G services in the UK, Three has confirmed its roadmap and pricing for 4G services. The UK’s fourth-largest carrier, owned by Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa, will start offering LTE beginning December 2013, starting first in London, Birmingham and Manchester; then going to 50 cities in 2014; and finally extending to 98 percent of the population by the end of 2015.

It may be the last of the bigger carriers to lay on LTE, but Three is doing it with a bang: to lure more people to its network, which today has 7.4 million active users. Three will be offering services at the same rates as it currently sells 3G — effectively a sizeable discount on what its competitors are doing.

“Our base point all along has been that LTE/4G is a much more efficient way of transporting data across the network,” corporate affairs director Hugh Davies told TechCrunch. “It allows the networks to carry more data more efficiently, and allows more users to benefit from better capacity. Why would you charge more for that?”

Prices for different phones and different plans differ but as a point of comparison, iPhone 5 plans at Three start at £31 per month and include unlimited mobile internet, with a £29 upfront cost. At EE, iPhone 5 plans start at £46 per month, with a £9.99 upfront cost and a 10GB data cap (EE has less expensive monthly tariffs but they have much higher upfront costs and even lower data caps). SIM-only plans for those who bring their own phones to Three’s network are typically also priced lower.

Three says that it will roll out the 4G capability as an over-the-air update. Its flavor of LTE will work on the 800MHz band, capacity it picked up in a round of spectrum auctions in March of this year for £225 million, a part of a bigger auction of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum that raised £2.3 billion. While Three owns its spectrum, it has a 50-50 infrastructure sharing agreement with EE.

By switching LTE on automatically for Three customers who already have 4G-capable devices, Three estimates that it will hit the ground with 1.5 million 4G users from the very start (it already sells a number of 4G-capable phones from Apple, Samsung, BlackBerry and Nokia; two pictured here to the right).

Compare that 1.5 million to EE, which launched its network in October last year, in July reported around 700,000 users, and projects that it will hit 1 million by the end of this year. Still, Three’s smaller overall customer base is the biggest focus for the company: it needs to drive up that 7.5 million subscriber figure to get better economies of scale on its network.

Ironically, it’s the last of the bigger UK mobile carriers to move into LTE, but Three was the first to offer 3G when networks went through their last major upgrade.