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O2 and Vodafone are to join forces on a network sharing joint venture, as the firms aim to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by 3G and 4G connectivity.

The rival mobile broadband providers aim to operate and manage a single network grid in the UK, subject to approval from the communications regulator Ofcom.

Both companies will continue to trade independently and compete with each other, and also have full control over wireless spectrum, intelligent core networks and customer data.

But O2 and Vodafone would share a single grid of 18,500 masts - amounting to a 40 per cent increase in grids for the two companies.

The joint venture would ensure that 98 per cent of the UK population has access to 2G and 3G services by 2015, two years earlier than the Ofcom target.

In addition, the firms believe that by collaborating they can ensure next-generation 4G broadband services are rolled out faster than would otherwise be possible.

Ronan Dunne, Chief Executive of Telefonica UK - which owns O2 - explained that "exceptional customer demand" for the mobile internet has challenged the industry to consider "innovative solutions".

He said the firms are looking to build a nationwide network that will be fit for their respective customers in the future and support the products and services that will truly make Britain digital.

"This partnership is about working smarter as an industry, so that we can focus on what really matters to our customers - delivering a super-fast network up to two years faster than Ofcom envisages and to as many people as possible," Mr Dunne stated.

"One physical grid, running independent networks, will mean greater efficiency, fewer site builds, broader coverage and, crucially, investment in innovation and better competition for the customer."

Guy Laurence, Chief Executive of Vodafone UK, said the partnership would "close the digital divide" for millions of people across the country.

"It will create two stronger players who will compete with each other and with other operators to bring the benefits of mobile internet services to consumers and businesses across the country," he added.

"We have learned a lot from our existing network collaboration but now it is time for it to evolve."

Mr Laurence said the partnership "will improve the service customers receive today and "give Britain the 4G networks that it will need tomorrow".

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