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A bunch of also-RAN: Vodafone and O2 cosy up to share '5G-active' gear

Sharing is caring, guys

Vodafone and O2 are to share their 5G radio antennas and joint network sites in an attempt to cut costs and speed up rollout.

Currently the operators have 16.9k combined mast sites, and told The Reg they'd share active 5G radio kit sites outside of the UK's main 24 cities.

The pair also said that under their latest plans they would install their own 5G equipment on around 2,700 – about 16 per cent – of their 16.9k combined mast sites. At these sites, located in 24 cities including London, each party will install their own radio equipment, fibre "backhaul" connection and power supply.

The current infrastructure-only agreement is run under a 50:50 network sharing joint venture managed by Cornerstone (aka CTIL), which handles the passive tower infrastructure. That mast-sharing arrangement has been in place since 2012, and looks after 16,900 masts altogether. In its full accounts to 31 March 2019 (PDF), CTIL had revenue of £340.9m, down from £354.9 and reported a loss of £60.2m, deepening from £55m - and the pair were reported to be interested in selling it earlier this year.

The recent 5G rollouts have all been "non-standalone" 5G deployments, supported by existing LTE (4G) radio and core network infrastructure. Telco standards body 3GPP will emit Release 16 – AKA the Standalone standard – in March next year.

Cornerstone also looks after infrastructure acquisition, design, build, maintenance and property management, as well as the ongoing consolidation of Vodafone and Telefonica's networks, known as the Beacon Programme, as Megabuyte's Philip Carse noted.

He said: "Perhaps more important corporately, Vodafone has reiterated a desire to explore the monetisation of CTIL." Those talks are expected to involve tower companies such as Arqiva, WIG and Cellnex, he added.

In May, Vodafone slashed its dividend for shareholders by 40 per cent, partially blaming investment in 5G infrastructure plans. The firm also reported €7.6bn in losses for its full year results of 2019.

Meanwhile, Telefonica's O2 reported an uplift in revenue of 5.4 per cent to £6bn, in calendar 2018 results published earlier this year, due to higher value smartphone sales, new custom plans, and growing Mobile Virtual Network Operator income.

In a canned statement about today's sharing plans, Voda's chief exec in the UK Nick Jeffery said: "We can boost capacity where our customers need it most so they can take full advantage of our new unlimited plans. And it demonstrates our commitment to further invest in our multi-billion pound network in the years to come, helping the UK become a digital pioneer."

Mark Evans, CEO, Telefónica UK, said: "This agreement will enable us to roll out 5G faster and more efficiently, benefiting customers while delivering value for our business. It also importantly allows us to utilise the spectrum we acquired in the last auction very effectively." ®

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