As we reported on Tuesday, Everything Everywhere CEO Olaf Swantee called on operators to stop fighting each other, particularly with regard to infrastructure issues.
In a briefing with European Communications on Thursday, David Salam, EE’s head of network strategy, didn’t quite pick a fight with rivals Telefónica and Vodafone but did admit that the spin around their recent network sharing agreement “grates a little”.
Earlier this month Telefónica and Vodafone announced they were in discussions with regulator Ofcom about rolling out a network sharing agreement later this year.
“I welcome any story that suggests they will invest and improve the network,” said Salam.
“But I also recognise they have taken a defensive stance in the past and they are now starting to turn that around and are talking about working towards 4G.
Telefónica and Vodafone said their agreement laid the foundations for a 4G future.
“It grates a little when they talk about liberalisation,” said Salam.
But rather than taking offence, there is much that the new partners could learn from EE’s experiences.
Two of the biggest challenges EE faced in making the network share work related to logistics and scale.
“First and foremost we had to make sure we didn’t degrade the network which 30 million customers – roughly half the UK population – rely on,” said Salam.
“There was huge complexity with regard to planning and ensuring the capacity was there in advance.”
Extensive, localised testing was done to ensure any interoperability issues were minimised in advance of the switch on.
Key to the whole process is managing the core physical assets.
Ovum analyst Emeka Obiodu estimated that Telefónica and Vodafone could expect network cost savings of at least 25 percent.
EE has not released any such figures, but has reduced 26,000 joint cell sites down to 18,000.
Salam said there was “a slight bias” towards T-Mobile’s infrastructure with MBNL – T-Mobile’s 3G joint venture with Three – used as “the anchor”.
Was there a battle agreeing which assets to keep and what value should be assigned to each?
“In practice it doesn’t matter – you need to take one away when there is natural overlap,” said Salam.
“We wanted to modernise the equipment anyway with the aim of rebuilding the network as a single entity.”
However, he said operators could not afford to get bogged down in arguments over whose name should be more visible.
“It can get emotive when it comes to brands but, ultimately, customers don’t care which one they see on their phone, they just want to get the network benefits.”
EE created a roaming service akin to an international roaming service “but on a much higher scale” to manage the network share.
The company invested in technology called Equivalent PLMN that tells each handset to pick the best signal from one of the two networks.
Salam said this has not been used anywhere else in this world at this scale.
At the back office level, Salam said billing systems needed to be sped up as clearing houses were often slower at processing roaming arrangements.
“You can’t afford that at a national level,” he said.
Another key area of focus now the national set-up has been completed relates to providing true international roamers with good, easy access to the EE – something they don’t enjoy at present.
“You need to go round to all your IR partners and configuration takes time,” he claimed.
As Telefónica and Vodafone are just the latest to demonstrate, network sharing is on the rise.
However, Salam does not expect such partnerships to go any further or deeper over the next couple of years.
“Most of the cost is based around the physical assets so I don’t expect we will do anything more than that,” he said.
“It will stop at the physical layer and competition will focus on customer care.”