While careful not to pre-empt the outcome of regulatory looks into its proposed merger with Vodafone Group’s local unit, 3 UK chief network officer Iain Milligan told Mobile World Live (MWL) he is enthused about the potential to create a massive network and step up the challenge to BT’s EE.

During a wide-ranging interview where he also updated on its capex-sapping Huawei equipment rip-out and the operator’s open RAN progress, Milligan said he expected the technical integration challenges of the floated merger to be managed with “good, sensible operational procedures”.

The company and Vodafone have an eight-year integration plan with the most complex part described by the expert as being the consolidation of cores and IT stacks. The technical elements, he added, were “exciting to do because of the scale”.

Milligan said there is a cross-the-board desire at 3 to make “this best, massive network”. 

“One of the things I’m really excited about is BT has been on top for ten years after their merger” with EE. “We genuinely believe that not only will we overtake them in performance and scale, we’ll outlast them for the next ten years on performance” due to the spectrum holdings and size of network the merged business would have.

However, he indicated, an important element will be to manage people through any cultural changes and uncertainty which comes with M&A activity. This is, of course, assuming the deal gets through regulators.

Push to open RAN
The executive noted 3 was on the cusp of hitting the milestone of having “no more than 35 per cent of our traffic being Huawei” following a government-mandated strip-out of equipment from “high risk vendors”. 

He noted this had taken a significant chunk of the operator’s capex in the last two years.

“The high risk vendor work is quite substantial, we had probably the biggest Huawei 5G rollout in the UK.”

“That’s been a big part of our capex investment in the last 18 months…swapping out perfectly working, Huawei high performance equipment with Ericsson equipment”.

Alongside banning kit deemed high risk, UK authorities set a goal for use of open RAN equipment in an attempt to promote vendor diversification.

In its initial feedback from testing with open RAN equipment, Milligan noted it “puts a lot more emphasis on not what you do out in the field but what you do within your data centres. I think we’re quite well set-up for that because we’ve got a distributed data centre footprint”.

He added the company supported the technology approach and agreed with the government’s “aspiration”, but added there is a need to ensure open RAN had a “sustainable, commercially viable ongoing environment”.

“I think what’s going to be the make or break for open RAN is that you find one of the vendors, not necessarily the two big ones left, who can actually stand behind a mass deployment in the tens of thousands of units, which so far we have not seen”.

He added ongoing R&D and support from emerging players selling in the space is of vital importance as, the technology will “work day one, but day one’s not the problem, it’s year two, year three, year four, because the radio equipment has to last you ten plus years”.

“We have lots of independent small companies doing open RAN software in the UK and that’s great,” Milligan said, noting the industry needed players which “can take the software and do mass production of equipment and run it. So far, the only one which is credible that is separate from the big ones is Mavenir, and that’s because they’ve got lots of funding coming from the US.”

Alongside experimenting with open RAN, the operator is making preparations to move to a containerised standalone (SA) 5G-capable core, though the executive told MWL that “doesn’t mean we’ll be able to launch SA anytime soon”.

It expects to conduct no additional 5G RAN rollout “for a couple of years” aside from contractual obligations, while it prioritises stripping out remaining Huawei equipment and replacing its 3G network ahead of a shut down. 

Although acknowledging the future value expected to be brought by SA 5G, he added the company does not have the technology in its five-year business plan.

One area where the company is in the process of investing, though, is the use of satellite backhaul to aid its Shared Rural Network deployments, with the company in the process of rolling out 80 sites with Starlink.  

Of these, three sites are already connected, with the remainder due in the “next few months” and the contract for the backhaul tipped to give it a “huge boost”, as there were issues getting fibre and power to rural areas.

The company and its peers had come under fire from BT earlier this year about what it deemed slow progress on the shared rural project.

However, Milligan rebutted the criticism, pointing to planning issues alongside losing time during the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. 

He said authorities acknowledged the issues, with the operator apparently now “on course” to complete its share.

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