When my Three Pay Monthly SIM stopped working with my iPad, I decided to investigate. It transpires that although the Terms & Conditions hadn't changed, the way I could use my SIM had.

Hutchison 3G, better known in the UK as the Three mobile phone network, is suspending parts of its service to users after a covert change to its terms and conditions. That’s the experience of this customer anyway, from a SIM-only Pay Monthly contract that has been blocked from operation on an iPad.

At the time of taking out the contract last year, Three seemed to impose no conditions regarding with what type of device its data-enabled SIMs could be used. I started the contract with Three as it offered the best all-round deal of performance and price. During much testing of internet-enabled devices in the line of my work, and using various networks’ SIM cards, I decided to start a subscription with Three. It was relatively affordable at £5.12 per month, and gave the fastest 3G data I’d seen from any network in and outside of London. 

This all changed around one month ago, beginning of June 2012, when internet access was blocked and a webpage started displaying a message reading ‘Your SIM will only work in your phone’.

It continues ‘Taking your SIM card out of your mobile phone and putting it into a different device – like a dongle or tablet – isn’t what our phone plans of Add-ons were designed for. You need to put your SIM back into your phone in order to continue using it.’ 

Using an iPad with a data-only SIM

The sticking point here may be the ‘isn’t what our plans were designed for’. Because there’s nothing in Three’s Terms and Conditions that dictates that you cannot move a SIM from tablet to phone or vice versa. We’ll return to this in a moment; for now, I’m not a lawyer, but surely that’s exactly the place where you dictate to your customers the terms and the conditions of the service for which they're paying? 

Many calls to Three’s customer services call centre were going nowhere. Staff I spoke to would read the script that 'it’s on the website, you cannot use a phone SIM in your iPad'. 

Oh really? The thing is, after reading through the entire document Three does not appear to have changed its Terms and Conditions since I started my subscription last year. But it appears to have changed its service to lock out customers from using their network when they dare to move their SIM into another device.

Has Three changed its terms and conditions?

I reached out to Three’s UK press office. After prompting them again for a response after four weeks of radio silence, I was sent a link to a page headed ‘Terms & Conditions for competitions, draws and offers’. 

We'll gloss over the confusing and irrelevant clause of 'for competitions, draws and offers' for the moment. It continues 'You'll find all the details of our Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go Terms & Conditions here.' (Italics mine).

Click through to the Pay Monthly Terms and Conditions link, and you find that seven-page PDF of small print – which in no way I can see places a condition on a SIM being provided for use in only a tablet or only a phone, etc. It seems more apparent that it is Three breaking the terms of its own contract by denying a service for which you started paying.

See for example Section 5.2: 'Once you are connected to Three, we will provide you with access to our Services'. My contract includes plenty of internet data, which unfortunately is not being provided. Three’s PR spokesman circled back later and then pointed to a Price Plan PDF which mentions, way down on p28 under ‘Points to note’: 

'Use your SIM in the device category of your price plan.

'You can’t put your voice SIM into anything other than a phone (e.g dongle, laptop, tablet). For example, if you’re on The One Plan you must use you SIM in a mobile handset only, you can’t remove it and place it in a mobile broadband dongle.’

It’s not in the Ts & Cs but at last, it’s something in black and white that seems to back up Three’s revised policy. Problem is, that’s a new addition that wasn’t there last year. 

It's a shame that Three didn't keep to its agreement to notify customers of such a change:

'Section 4.1:

(b) we will let you know at least one month in advance if we decide to: 

(ii) make any variations to your agreement which are likely to be of material detriment to you.'

Maybe they thought they didn't have to notify existing customers because they haven't actually changed the Terms & Conditions at all, merely a footnote buried in a Price Guide? See also: Smartphones buying advice.