O2 CTO Talks Network Upgrades As Life Goes On After Failed Three Merger

O2 CTO Brendan O’Reilly says network will only get better under Telefonica despite failed Three merger but wants spectrum and dark fibre reforms

Slightly more than a year ago at O2’s headquarters in Slough, O2 CTO Brendan O’ Reilly, told TechWeekEurope about the operator’s vision of a customer-centric network and stressed it had a roadmap in place that was independent of the proposed £10.25 billion merger than Three.

This proved to be a prudent decision. The European Commission (EC) refused to give its blessing to the takeover and now O2 is pressing ahead under the continued ownership of Telefonica, which had seemed so keen to dispense its British subsidiary.

Both Telefonica and Three’s parent Hutchison had warned that unless the merger went ahead, Three and O2 would struggle to compete with Vodafone and a BT-owned EE. But O2 has fared acceptably during the negotiations and is now “reintegrating” with the wider group with an emphasis on its reputation for good customer service.

Customer-centric network

The O2It’s a key differentiator in a competitive marketplace and O’Reilly, who is responsible for the network architecture, believes it is vital now the merger freely admits customers don’t care what technology is used so long as it works and says plans are in place to improve infrastructure.

These include self-optimising network (SON) technology that analyses call, text and data quality in a specific area to see If there are any issues, and remotely make changes, such as titling antennas.

“We had to do what was right by our customers [regardless of the proposed merger],” he tells TechWeekEurope, noting the customer service awards won by O2 and its strong recent financial results have shown its competitiveness.

“We go ahead with plan A: improving coverage and capacity as data demand grows. What’s really important is that we deliver for our customers’ expectations. We haven’t deviated from that.”

It had been speculated that outgoing CEO Ronan Dunne could lead a management buyout of O2, but the operator isn’t for sale in the medium-term and Telefonica could even float part of the business.

As for customers, O’Reilly says the wider group’s scale and research and development teams will help advance network virtualisation and the advent of 5G. But as O’Reilly says, customers don’t care about that – they just want a good service.

But for all its customer service plaudits, independent testing places O2 at the bottom. Research firm RootMetrics recently declared O2 the least impressive of all four operators, but O2 has continually rejected claims it is the worst network in the UK.

“Our view hasn’t changed,” states O’Reilly. “RootMetrics do a certain amount of tests and we test our network every day, not just some independent benchmarking. Our progress is ongoing and we have an industry leading churn figure so we know our customers are happy.”

Improving coverage

O2 4GAs per the terms of its 800MHz spectrum licence, O2 must deliver a 4G service to 98 percent of the UK population by 2017, but it has no 2.6GHz spectrum. This bandwidth has a short range but much greater capacity, making it ideal for urban areas.

Like his counterparts at other networks, O’Reilly believes having greater access to sites will make a difference – something which should be afforded by the Digital Economy Act in the near future. At present, operators must negotiate with landowners every time they want to build or even upgrade a mast and local planning regulations make it difficult to use council street furniture.

“We were pleased at the first reading of the bill,” he says. “But really to do it we need the support of local government as well. It’s about building partnership and we need to show communities the benefits of being connected. If we can start to build those collaborations with communities.”

But this still doesn’t address O2’s lack of high bandwidth. Ofcom is preparing to auction off 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz airwaves vacated by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) but although O2 is interested, O’Reilly had reservations about how the sale will be conducted.

“We’re looking forward to see what the rules are,” he explains. “For us, it’s about having a competitive auction. We don’t have parity in spectrum at this time. I think we need to make sure there is parity to help consumers.”

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