3 UK, the country’s smallest operator, has pledged to build-out dual-carrier HSPA to half of the UK population by year-end and 80 percent by next April – mounting a challenge to EE’s roll-out of the country’s first 4G network.

3 said its self-styled ‘Ultrafast’ network is already live in 50 of the UK’s biggest cities and towns, covering 39 percent of the population.

The operator has previously said it will launch LTE next year using two chunks (2×15 MHz) of 1800 MHz spectrum it is acquiring from EE, which will double capacity on its network.  However, while Ofcom has approved the transaction it is not expected to complete until the second half of next year. EE launched its 4G network last month.

3 claims to be the UK’s fastest-growing operator, adding 1.04 million customers over the past year to 8.8 million in total, adding 301,000 customers in the last quarter alone.

“These network improvements are designed to maintain our position as the fastest growing UK mobile operator,” said 3 UK CEO Dave Dyson (pictured). “Our Ultrafast network is giving more people in more places access to an even faster mobile internet experience.”

The operator says its growth plans are being backed up by an 800-strong recruitment drive that will add nearly 400 sales and service roles at its Glasgow office and 400 across its high street retail stores and Maidenhead office.