What happened to the UK's old mobile networks? 3

What happened to the UK’s old mobile networks?

The UK’s mobile phone infrastructure has been evolving since the mid-1980s, and many mobile networks have long since bitten the dust.

If you’re old enough to remember Maureen Lipman advertising British Telecom, you might occasionally feel a pang of nostalgia for long-lost brands like Cellnet and One2One.

Yet in many cases, these companies never really left us.

Indeed, their foundations continue to underpin the UK’s mobile communications industry.

Below, we briefly summarise what happened to the brands of yesteryear – and how they shaped the networks we use today.

The early years

In 1985, the Government licenced two new companies (Cellnet and Racal-Vodafone) to begin offering cellular radio services, disrupting BT’s monopoly on telephony provision.

Two years later, Cellnet and Racal-Vodafone were granted advanced UK rights over the European digital cellular radio service (known as GSM), planned for the mid-Nineties.

As subscriber numbers grew, the Government decided to break up the duopoly by inviting new applications for telecommunications licences in 1990.

And by 1993, two more providers (Orange and One2One) had arrived to market, combining a limited choice of handsets with colourful marketing campaigns and tempting prices.

Even though each network was operating across overlapping analogue (and latterly digital) bandwidths, all four attracted loyal customers and competed fiercely for market share.

Cellnet, Vodafone, One2One and Orange dominated the Nineties, launching innovations including prepaid services (Vodafone) and pay-as-you-go (One2One) throughout the decade.

Into the new Millennium

By 2000, it was possible to buy a Pay and Go handset in a supermarket for around £40, from whichever network took your fancy.

The Noughties heralded innovations like camera phones (2000), picture messaging (2002) and 3G handsets capable of receiving mobile data (2003), as we began to rely on our phones more and more.

However, burgeoning call frequency and spiralling mobile data usage resulted in far greater network management costs – resulting in a wave of Millennial mergers and acquisitions.

BT acquired full ownership of Cellnet in 1999 and rebranded it as BT Cellnet, before spinning off its mobile division in 2003 to form a new business called mmO2.

In the same year Cellnet was bought by BT, One2One was sold to Deutsche Telekom. And within months of O2’s arrival, One2One was renamed T-Mobile.

T-Mobile struggled against established players like Vodafone, so a merger was agreed in 2009 between its Deutsche Telekom parent and France’s Orange.

Combining a striking colour palette with high-profile advertising, Orange had been a major player in the UK. Indeed, the T-Mobile merger affected over a third of UK mobile customers.

Before long, the decision was taken to rebrand as EE – short for Everything Everywhere.

That left Vodafone as the only recognisable name to have survived since the mid-1980s – minus its Racal prefix, of course.

The other firm to achieve mainstream success during this period was Three, launched by Hutchison in 2003 to focus on video messaging and 3G services.

Three was favourably positioned to capitalise on the mobile internet boom, though it remains the smallest network with around 12 per cent market share.

EE and O2 now hold just over a quarter of the market each, while Vodafone isn’t far behind at 21 per cent.

What about smaller providers?

These four companies operate the UK’s mobile networks, but plenty of other firms piggyback on their infrastructure.

This is an established phenomenon – everyone from the Post Office to the RSPCA has launched and then dropped mobile phone provision at some point in the last 25 years.

Some of these sub-brands were taken over, several merged, a few were renamed and a couple ended up being liquidated following financial collapse.

Regardless of which company provides your SIM-only contract, data will be carried across one of the four big UK networks.

As examples, Tesco Mobile patrons access the same networks and cell towers as O2 subscribers, while arch-rival Asda Mobile relies on EE’s infrastructure.

Arms-length providers often manage to undercut their host networks on cost, despite having to pay for the privilege of sharing cellular hardware.

Don’t assume this hardware is cutting-edge, however.

Outwith recent developments like 4G, much of the investment in today’s mobile industry was historic.

Indeed, Giffgaff and Sky Mobile customers continue to benefit from infrastructure works started over thirty years ago by Cellnet.

Similarly, Talk Mobile and Lebara subscribers can thank Racal-Vodafone for the foundations of the network they rely on today.

The names might be long gone, but their legacy endures.

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