The Big Switch On: The marriage Orange and T-Mobile networks and the birth of 4G

The network is the backbone of our company.

It’s been our core product for over 20 years. It began in the 90s with 2G and the first steps toward a digital revolution for mobile. 2G was great for making phone calls and sending texts. At the time, it was revolutionary, but very quickly it became a basic expectation for the people of the western world.

When 3G was introduced early on in the new millennium it promised a lot. It delivered a lot. But as the digital revolution picked up pace in the homes and offices of the UK, customer’s expectations of what they could do with their mobiles changed too. People wanted the internet on the move. Beyond voice and text, having access to the internet on the move just came something people expected

To keep up with these expectations we have invested more than £15bn since 2000 on improving and upgrading our 3G network – helping people realise the full personal, social and economic benefits of the digital revolution.

And we have continued to invest and build. Never more so than over the last year.  In January this year we began a £1.5bn infrastructure investment programme to improve and modernise our network and prepare for 4G – a pioneering way to access whatever you want, wherever you are. A way to keep in touch with the people, places and things you want, on your own terms.

On September 11, 2012 we announced a new company, a new network, and a new brand: EE, which will be the first brand in the UK to offer customers a superfast 4G experience, and will launch on the October 30, 2012.

Focusing on the backbone of our company

Creating a network to match the 250 per cent growth in data consumption in the UK, and meet the UK’s 4G ambitions has required a bold and decisive approach. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the merger of Orange and T-Mobile’s networks – the building blocks of the EE network.

In July 2010, we set out to build the Everything Everywhere network, with the ambition of providing the broadest coverage and greatest capacity of any network in the UK, allowing the combined customer base of more than 27 million to do everything they want with their mobile, everywhere in the country.

To make this ambition a reality EE had to oversee one of the world’s biggest network integration projects – bringing together the two networks to create the largest network in the UK and laying the foundations for next-generation 4G connectivity in the country. This was a major project that has taken nearly two years to fully realise.

The integration

In October 2010, Everything Everywhere began “The Big Switch On” by enabling Orange and T-Mobile customers to share 2G signal for calls and texts. A year later, 3G signal sharing was added and is a service that is now used by more than 9 million customers. As a result, 190 million calls and more than 300 million megabytes of data have been carried by customers’ non-home network, giving T-Mobile and Orange customers access to the widest 3G coverage in the UK.

In May 2011, engineers completed the third phase of the project: Smart Signal Share. With Smart Signal Share, when a customer’s 3G signal starts to fade, signal from the other network will automatically be prioritised if it is stronger.

Alongside this project, EE is upgrading its mobile backhaul infrastructure to Gigabit Ethernet, boosting capacity in the part of the network that connects the radio masts to the core internet infrastructure.

Our signal sharing has made the funnel into the network wider, but crucially our investment in the backhaul has made our fat pipes even fatter, to ensure bottlenecks do not result at times of high demand.

Overcoming the challenges of integration

Bringing together the T-Mobile and Orange networks was not a simple task and EE’s engineers had to overcome a number of challenges to get us to the position we are today.

Interoperability: Customers on the T-Mobile and Orange networks needed to be able to roam freely between the two networks without interruption.

In order to do this, approximately 28,000 masts across the two networks had to be upgraded in the same way that masts are upgraded to allow for international roaming between home and foreign networks. The software upgrade took 16 weeks to deploy (following three months of trials) and was completed in September 2011.

Our engineers also ensured interoperability by making remote upgrades to customers’ mobile phones. All active SIM cards are now programmed to roam across the T-Mobile and Orange networks.

Overcoming capacity issues

Mobile operators running a single network can easily predict how many people are likely to use a radio cell at a given time, and ensure there is enough capacity to support all call and data sessions.  However, following the integration, the EE network had to be prepared to support  27 million customers in the UK roaming across T-Mobile and Orange – and ensure that we had sufficient capacity to give them a great experience.

This project took over six months to complete, and involved a detailed analysis of pinch points across the country, and optimisation of capacity to deliver a consistently high level of customer experience for up to 50 million subscribers roaming on the network.  EE now has the most advanced backhaul in the UK, with a national Ethernet footprint that has a higher throughput capacity than any of our competitors.

The next generation of mobile connectivity

EE is continuing to invest in upgrading its network and has rolled out HSPA+ (3.5G) across its network, a move that provides customers with the fastest network speeds in the UK – about 50 per cent faster than the speeds currently available. The rollout has seen 12,000 sites upgraded to deliver coverage to 95 per cent of EE’s customers.

This is just the start, however. While upgrading its 2G network, which runs on the 1800MGHZ spectrum, EE’s engineers have put in place the required technology to get the UK’s first 4G network up and running. 4G is the most advanced mobile network standard seen to date. It is specifically built to handle mobile internet and data more efficiently, allowing faster and more reliable mobile connectivity.

The impact 4G will have on consumers and business in the UK cannot be overstated. 4G will enable mobile devices to work more powerfully, allowing greater flexibility over how and where people work and play. It will also provide a major boon to the UK’s creative and media industries as well as the developers of apps and games. In order to thrive, those industries need a network which opens up new possibilities of speed and responsiveness.

Recent research into the potential of 4G for the UK economy by Capital Economics demonstrates just how great the impact on businesses will be. The company estimates that the UK’s adoption of the new technology could unlock £5.5bn of direct private investment, and found that 4G could support 125,000 jobs and ultimately provide a 0.5 per cent boost to GDP.

All of this hard work and investment has led to the launch of the UK’s first superfast 4G mobile network on October 30, offering mobile speeds that leave even your average home broadband service in the dust and a service fit for a digitally literate nation, with digitally liberated expectations.

David Salam, Director of Network Strategy, Architecture and Design, EE

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