Let’s talk about the network.

February 16, 2018


We can feel lost if we’re not permanently connected to the digital world. When something goes wrong and you have no network connection, or there’s patchy coverage, it can feel like you’ve lost a limb.

Here’s the big question: how does the Three network actually work and what can cause network issues? Let’s be honest, all we’re really worried about is getting re-connected as soon as possible, but do you really know how to get the most out of the Three network when you’re in an area with limited coverage? Do you know your 3G network from your 4G network? Your LTE from your VoLTE? And now 5G has been added to the mix too. Let’s get started.

Signal stress

Our network is made up of thousands of sites built across the country that house several antennas (or masts) that provide a signal for that specific area. You can check your coverage or find out latest information on any network issues using our coverage checker. Let’s try and understand some of the things that can cause the nightmare of having no signal.

Hardware or power failures

Failures with hardware can happen at any stage of the connection process. This can be anything from a fault in the mast nodes, to a failure with a 3rd party’s infrastructure or a fault with the mobile device or SIM.

This may seem like an obvious cause for electrical equipment failing, but loss of power can affect masts in different ways. Each mast runs on a mains power supply. A complete loss of service from the mains will take a mast completely out of use.


Congestion is the result of too many users trying to use one site. The site can’t handle the volume of traffic being fed into it, causing those with weaker connections to drop-off. This typically happens in areas of high populations, or rural areas where masts are a lot more spread out. Congestion can also be affected by the capacity of the site, which can vary depending on the fixed line connection running to it. We’re continually upgrading our sites to prevent congestion.

Antennae placement and direction

Our network teams plan our network placement and the area covered by each mast. Typically, each mast will have 3 nodes, each containing several cells. These nodes can be pointed in different directions depending on where we want the signal to lie, making sure there’s enough overlap in the signal area with surrounding masts. This allows a constant transfer of data, and provides a seamless connection when you’re moving around. Changing their position needs to be carefully planned by our network strategy team and can be carried out remotely or manually by an engineer visiting the site.

Signal interference

A number of objects can interfere with network performance. Anything from hills and valleys, to large buildings, structures and vegetation can affect or limit the signal. Newly built structures or buildings and growing trees can cause an outage by reflecting or absorbing the radio link between 2 masts. In the case of trees, we’ll often try and contact the land owner to work through these issues.

Weather can also impact your signal. In summer, hot temperatures can cause aircon systems to fail within the mast sites, whereas in winter heavy rain and snow can cause signal failure. Strong winds can sometimes damage the antennas by changing their direction.

Stay connected

Now you’ve got more of an understanding of how the network works, and what can prevent it from running as perfectly as we all want, how can you prevent yourself from being affected by network issues?

Wi-Fi Calling

When faced with the situation of having no mobile signal, you can still have the best experience possible on our network with Wi-Fi Calling, which allows you to still call and text whenever you’re on Wi-Fi in the UK, and you’ll be charged in the same way as you usually would.

Depending on the phone you have, it’ll either need a simple software update to switch seamlessly to Wi-Fi Calling, or you’ll just need to turn it on in the settings. Do this now, then you’re prepared for any future network issues.

You can find out everything you need to know on our dedicated Wi-Fi Calling page.

Jargon buster

3G – Third generation mobile technology. Built to meet International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 specifications which called for minimum transfer speeds of 200 kB/s.

HSxPA (3.5G) – High-speed Downlink Packet Access and High-speed Uplink Packet Access – Introducing new transport layer channels allowed for increased data transfer speeds and building our network foundations for data transfer.

LTE (HSDPA+ or 4G) – Stands for Long Term Evolution – LTE is essentially 4G connection, 4G allows networks to provide true mobile broadband with speeds averaging 15Mb/s.

VoLTE – Stands for Voice over LTE. This connects voice calls over our LTE data network which is better built to handle larger volumes of traffic. This has been brought in to alleviate congestion issues across our 3G network.

5G – Stands for fifth generation mobile network. This brand-new network is set to be the fastest yet. With super-fast speeds, low latency and huge capacity, 5G’s been tipped to change the way we use data.  Want some more info on 5G and what it’ll mean for you? Check out our dedicated 5G page.

Site – A site is the physical structure that houses a number of antennas, often for more than one network. Each site will host multiple cells for each network node, which are positioned to provide the best coverage the site can offer.

Quick tips to get the most out of the network.

1. If your usual signal has changed recently check coverage checker for the latest info.

2. Get up to speed and set up Wi-Fi Calling to make sure you stay connected.

3. If your issues persist get in touch with us, we’re here to help.