And then there were two. With UK mobile operators Everything Everywhere and Three already sharing their networks through a joint venture, rivals Vodafone and Telefonica (trading as O2) are about to do something similar.
In effect, this means the UK will have just two sets of mobile infrastructure – enough to keep things competitive, and hopefully enough to finally get LTE rolled out within a reasonable timeframe.
Bobbie covered the original announcement of the infrastructure play back in June – now it’s got regulatory approval from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading, and is set to go ahead. But a lot has changed between June and now, making the new joint venture even more important for Vodafone and Telefonica than it already was.
The big change, of course, has been Everything Everywhere (or EE as it about to start calling itself) getting approval to launch 4G services before its rivals can. Essentially, through its nature as the merged operations of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK, EE has tons of spectrum in the 1800MHz band – that was previously useful for 2G services, but it can also be ‘refarmed’ for 4G.
Handily for EE, 1800MHz happens to work with the iPhone 5 for providing 4G services. Telefonica and Vodafone don’t have enough 1800MHz spectrum to use viably for LTE. They do both have 2100MHz spectrum, which can theoretically be used for iPhone 5-friendly 4G services, but that spectrum is currently being taken up by 3G services and there’s no scope for refarming it just yet.
So, to cut that long story short, both Vodafone and Telefonica desperately need to get their hands on the 4G spectrum that is on offer, namely the tranches of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum that will go on auction at the end of this year.
Unfortunately for them, neither of the bands will provide LTE support for the iPhone 5, but there are plenty of other handsets that will play nicely with those frequencies. And, when they get their hands on that spectrum, they will need to roll it out damn fast.
That’s where this network-sharing deal comes in. Vodafone and Telefonica were already sharing many of their cell towers and masts, but now they (or rather their joint venture, CTI) will also share the telecoms equipment that’s installed on that physical infrastructure. Vodafone will manage the equipment in the west of England and in Wales, with Telefonica managing the rest.
“This partnership is about working smarter as an industry, so that we can focus on what really matters to our customers – delivering a superfast network up to two years faster than Ofcom envisages and to as many people as possible,” Telefonica UK chief Ronan Dunne said in a statement.
It’s still not quite as cosy a deal as EE and Three’s MBNL arrangement, which sees all the partners broadcasting in a single band – indeed, Vodafone and Telefonica will continue to run their networks separately, in different bands. That means no opportunities for roaming between the networks.
But it will mean that both operators get to deploy much more quickly than they previously could. It should also lead to better geographical and indoor coverage for both carriers’ customers, across all three generations of currently-used cellular communications.
After many years of dozily contemplating the possibilities of 4G in the UK, the race is finally on. As is the possibility of future consolidation, should the industry landscape continue to evolve in that direction.