Everything Everywhere’s James Hattam Tells TechWeekEurope about challenges of bringing Orange and T-Mobile’s networks together
Earlier this year, Everything Everywhere completed its Smart Signal Project, which allows customers of both Orange and T-Mobile to use both brands’ 3G networks seamlessly.
The process started from the moment the two companies merged in October 2010, with network sharing first taking place last year – but only once the user lost their signal entirely, before reconnecting to whichever signal was strongest.
The scale of the project was “enormous”, according to James Hattam, director of network service management at Everything Everywhere. “As far as we know it was the biggest of its kind.”
Smart Signal Project
“Where we are now is where we wanted to get to,” said Hattam. “The way smart signalling works is that before, when you were a T-Mobile customer, before Smart Signal, it preferred your home network but would switch to Orange if you lost coverage or if the conditions were right.
“But now, with Smart Signal, you don’t prefer your home network. You will choose the best signal when you log on and then as you move around the network and the different cell sites, you will pick the appropriate cell site, it doesn’t matter if it’s T-Mobile or Orange.
“There are a few algorithms that define how it works, but in essence you now don’t have a home network. That really is the point we want to get to and that’s a huge part of the customer-facing benefits of bringing the two networks together.”
“We started doing active work in bringing the networks together pretty much as soon as we brought the two companies together,” he said. “The project kind of landed on the technical community two years ago and it was a golden opportunity to deliver something that no one else could do. You’re bringing together two networks that were previously competitors and so therefore had the length and breadth of the UK covered, but then you’re bringing them together so you can add and take away the best bits from both.
“If you can think that T-Mobile and Orange have been working for, give or take, 20 years and some people have got very old handsets, right through to smartphones. How do we make sure that these continue to work as well as before when they’re on the other network?
“There was never anything prior to it and we haven’t seen anything as complicated or as big since. For a bunch of geeks in technology, it was a great problem to try and solve.”
“Hundreds of thousands” of man-hours went into the testing of software and hardware variants and to ensure that there was enough capacity on the network for customers to continue using their services. Roaming provided a sort of blueprint for the project, although Hattam said that this was on a much larger scale.
“When you go abroad you probably accept a couple of things not working as they do in the UK, but when in the UK, we’ve chosen to bring the networks together, so the onus is on us to make sure everything carries on working as much as it did before the merger,” he added.
“Billing is a good point. Some services require information to travel quickly, which doesn’t always happen when you’re roaming. We had to redesign the way that that all routed to ensure that your experience is as good as it was.”
Shortly after the Smart Signal project was completed, Vodafone and Telefonica announced that they were going to pool together their basic network infrastructure, but Hattam said what Everything Everywhere is doing was completely different.
Vodafone and Telefonica
He said that although it was difficult to speculate because so few details have been disclosed, it sounded as though what the two companies were doing was similar to what T-Mobile and Three did with MBNL back in 2007.
“MBNL was set up five years ago and that was about setting up a network sharing agreement between Three and T-Mobile and that is a tremendously complex thing to do,” he said. “I think there’s going to be some teething pains. To say you’re going to share networks is great, but there’s a hell of a lot to get right before you make that work – organisationally, technically, financially and legally – all of those things play a massive part in doing it.”
The project will have little impact on Everything Everywhere’s controversial plans to run a 4G network on its existing spectrum ahead of the planned auction of bandwidth later this year, but Hattam believes 4G LTE is a great thing for the UK.
“It has been a story over two years,” he said. “Where we are now is where we wanted to get to.”
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