Vodafone and Orange to share UK radio access network

One network to rule them all

Orange and Vodafone are to combine their radio access networks, effectively allowing customers of each to roam between the networks in the UK.

The deal, once completed, will create a single 3G network accessible by customers of both companies, who will maintain separate responsibility for quality of service, customer issues, and application portfolios.

This idea has been mooted in the past, but distinct technical problems have prevented any adoption.

On 2G networks Vodafone and Orange operate at distinctly different frequencies, and while this agreement states that combining of 2G networks should be explored it only expects that to happen "as technical solutions become available".

Combining 3G networks is technically easier, though there are still significant barriers to overcome. Vodafone sources its 3G equipment from Ericsson, while Orange uses a mix of Nortel, Nokia Siemens and Alcatel equipment. Many of those boxes will remain, but everything at the cell site, and backhaul, will be need to be integrated and rationalised to achieve the cost reduction this plan should enable.

For Orange this deal will slightly increase their coverage, but for Vodafone it is really just a cost-reduction measure: managing cell sites is a significant drain on resources and with 3G technology making it possible to share the network there seems little reason not to.

The details of who will run this combined network have yet to be decided; a new company will likely be formed, with Orange and Vodafone as its customers. Both companies are also free to expand their own networks beyond that managed by the third party, such as providing additional coverage for a big corporate customer.

The deal raises the prospect of other networks seeking to combine their radio connectivity in the same way. In the UK this seems initially unlikely, but there are many countries where similar deals could work well and if Orange and Vodafone manage to achieve integration without too much trouble then the idea is likely to spread.®

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