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January 29, 2016updated 30 Aug 2016 3:03pm

How O2 is using 4G, cloud and wi-fi to serve the business market

C-level briefing: GM for Enterprise talks to CBR about how innovative technologies are making the most of O2's assets.

By Alexander Sword

O2 differs from most of the other UK providers in that it lacks its own fixed assets, such as broadband. It also missed out during the 2013 spectrum auction, ending up with less spectrum to use compared to several of its competitors.

Three doesn’t have any significant presence in the enterprise market, meaning that the intended acquisition of O2 by Hutchinson Whampoa will not add any significant assets.

However, as O2’s Enterprise General Manager, Gavin Franks explains, the operator has been making use of the assets it does have in innovative ways to better serve the business market.

"Historically we’ve been very much a mobile-centric business, selling mobile with limited capabilities outside," he says.

"About five years ago we went on a journey within enterprise where we recognised that with the strong customer focus leadership we have on mobile, our customers were talking about a wider comms piece. We entered into what we called the ICT market at the time, looking at how we could start to grow outside mobile.

"From an enterprise perspective we’ve looked at what are the core capabilities we need and relationships and partnerships we need."

"At the heart of that is a wide area network delivery for customers with a cloud-based hosted application which is O2 wi-fi, our public wi-fi. What we started to do was build out our own core fixed data network with wi-fi and deliver a single service over that."

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As Franks says, the sell-off of O2’s fixed broadband assets comprised the access network, not the core network.

"Two years ago, when we sold our broadband business to Sky we held onto our core network which we turned into our own fixed MPLS. The high-capacity network that powered our broadband has integrated with our cellular network. In terms of the access network, we’re in the same position as any other provider, buying wholesale from BT."

In 2015, as Franks explains, O2 brought together the wi-fi, cellular and fixed networks to create O2 Gateway. What O2 wants to move to is having an overall O2 network that customers can remain in regardless of the situation.

"Whether they’re sitting in an office and connected via one of the fibres that goes into our fixed platform, sitting in McDonald’s with O2 wi-fi, or in a park on the cellular network, they never leave the O2 network if they use their own business resources. It’s secure and also seamless and easy to use.

This means that customers don’t need to use VPNs, alongside other benefits.

"The other thing that that brings is simplicity. We put a single pipe into customers’ premises and then running multiple services. Rather than having voice or data, we have a single connection through Gateway."

This integration comes into play in several major areas. Through the 4G network, O2 is able to quickly provision sites or nodes onto a customer’s WAN network using the cellular data.

Franks says: "Rather than having to wait ages for a fixed line to be deployed by Openreach to provide that connectivity, we can do it pretty much immediately."

O2 also launched its own cloud platform last year.

"It’s a private cloud environment offering, flexibly, infrastructure and platform as a service capabilities," says Franks. "The key thing with that is that we are using it to host some of our own applications and services. This includes O2 wi-fi.

"We are also integrating our cloud platform with other third party cloud platforms, so we create a virtual cloud environment."

This allows O2 to help customers manage their move from on-premise to cloud.

"Once they’re connected to the Gateway platform they have full access to all the resources in the cloud platform.

"We’ve also integrated two unified comms solutions, Skype for Business and Mitel. This allows us to deliver seamless UC services across both fixed and mobile environments."

The implications of these offerings go beyond their direct implementations, says Franks.

"I think the technology that you see today through things like Skype for Business; this isn’t about video conferencing as Skype has been known for. This is about people ripping out of all their fixed infrastructure that has tied people to desks. What it enables through wi-fi in the offices is people walking around the office or outside the office making a call."

The presence of O2 and other providers in the public wi-fi market provides another means by which customers might be served. There is some competition here; BT Wi-Fi, formerly known as BT Openzone, has over 5 million hotspots in the UK.

Franks suggests that wi-fi will not go down the route of the fixed market, which has been dominated by Openreach due to the vast amount of assets it has.

"Wi-fi is a very different model. For the first majority now, the expectation is that wi-fi is free. It’s almost the obligation of the venue that you are in. In the old days, you would have to make very expensive calls from your hotel room. Now most hotels offer wi-fi. I don’t see IPass and the other aggregators being particularly important in this value chain."

This model will mean that the model seen on the London Underground, for example, where one provider has the assets and other operators buy it wholesale, will be the exception rather than the rule.

"I don’t see a huge deal of wholesaling going on because most people just take wi-fi for granted as a hygiene factor. Venues want to connect with customers that come in.

"Where it does is where you have a scarce resource. On the Underground there is no alternative. Virgin will have secured the rights and then be able to sell on the rights as part of the deal."

To create truly ubiquitous connectivity, it will be important to provide a ubiquitous experience. For this, VoIP will be crucial, which will allow voice traffic to be transmitted either over wi-fi or LTE.

Three and O2 opted for the approach of offering wi-fi calling through a mobile app, with InTouch and TUGo respectively.

Vodafone in Septemebr followed the same approach to rolling out wi-fi calling as EE, which launched its own service in April of this year. EE’s wi-fi calling service now has more than 1.3million provisioned users.

To run these services, devices have to be provisioned by the carrier in question, so a compatible device not purchased through the operator will not be able to run the service.

Franks says that his understanding is that O2 will be delivering an integrated version of voice over wi-fi in the second half of year. The provider has been slower to do this because its existing app has had the necessary functionality, he explains.

All of this demonstrates that it is not about what assets you have; O2’s key is the innovative way it uses what it has.


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