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1&1 is now officially the fourth mobile network operator in Germany, having finally launched its own, albeit fairly limited scale, 5G network.
December 11, 2023
And more than that, it is also able to lay claim to being the operator of Europe's first Open RAN network.
We have been talking about 1&1 as Germany's fourth MNO for some time now. Then an MVNO, it won 5G spectrum as long ago as 2019, but its full market entry has been beset by delays. The rollout of a greenfield Open RAN network was never going to be a quick endeavour, and difficulties with both roaming deals and towers access added to the challenge.
1&1 declared its Open RAN network, well, open, at the start of this year, but presumably it wasn't fully open; the company was talking about having three active sites at the time. It hasn't commented on the number of sites in this latest launch announcement, but it's safe to presume that it now has more than that, although probably not scores more.
Either way, 1&1 has secured a second opportunity to declare itself the continent's first Open RAN operator. Which it is, if you factor in that 1&1 is building a greenfield Open RAN network, while other pioneers of the technology – Vodafone, TIM, Orange and the like – are launching a growing number of sites, but alongside legacy networks.
While the Open RAN angle is clearly a big deal, 1&1's official entry into the mobile market comes not on the back of that infrastructure, but is essentially thanks to roaming partner Telefonica.
"The activation of mobile services was preceded by the provision of 5G national roaming by Telefónica Germany yesterday," 1&1's announcement late last week reads. "This means that 1&1 customers can now access Telefónica's 5G network wherever the 1&1 network, which is currently being set up, does not yet have its own coverage. Automatically and without interruption. Vodafone is scheduled to provide 5G national roaming from summer 2024."
1&1's struggles with its partners, who are also competitors, of course, has been well documented.
Telefonica was 1&1's original MVNO host network, but the pair came to blows back in 2020 over price hikes. They buried the hatchet the best part of a year later and inked a new five-year deal, backdated to mid-2020. But with nearly two years still to run on that deal, 1&1 jumped into bed with Vodafone, signing a five-agreement to use its network, last summer. That deal comes into force next summer and will ramp up over the course of 2025. So while 1&1 is showing Telefonica some love in its launch announcement, it is set to start withdrawing its contribution to the Spanish-owned operator's revenues pretty soon.
The Vodafone deal came amidst an ongoing battle between 1&1 and Vodafone's towers operation Vantage.
Germany's Federal Cartel Office is investigating whether Vantage Towers broke competition law after complaints from 1&1 that the passive infrastructure specialist blocked its 5G rollout by failing to activate sites in a timely fashion. That certainly held back 1&1's market entry, putting it in breach of its spectrum licence terms as a result.
But while it does not yet have the number of active sites that it requires, 1&1 is keen to focus on the positives, namely its official launch.
"We have been closely following the development of the new Open RAN technology from the very beginning. So when Rakuten launched the first fully virtualized mobile network in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, we knew for sure: This is the future!" said 1&1 CEO Ralph Dommermuth. Rakuten and Mavenir are key partners for 1&1 on its Open RAN journey, and both separately announced the 1&1 launch.
"Since then, we have built internal specialist teams, established a strong partner network, and concluded tough national roaming negotiations," Dommermuth added, reminding us that his company launched a 5G-based home broadband service in Germany a year ago. "We are now taking the next step by activating mobile services. The 1&1 O-RAN is now fully operational – an important milestone in our company's history."
The Open RAN launch is indeed a milestone rather than an end point. 1&1 now faces the task of signing up customers to its network. No matter the strengths of the technology, without a customer base 1&1 will not get very far.
Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.
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