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Vodafone claims victory over rival mobile operators in race for new subscribers

Vodafone yesterday claimed leadership over its three rival mobile phone networks after a record pre-Christmas race to sign up customers.

But Orange, which saw its share of market growth slip back, warned that other operators had been drawn into a "dangerous numbers game" to boost their figures. Chris Godsmark, Business Correspondent, reports

The four mobile groups added 726,000 net new subscribers - the difference between those joining and those leaving the networks - between October and December, easily beating the previous record 574,000 quarterly increase achieved two years ago.

The combination of aggressive price cuts and a pounds 15m high street store rebranding programme helped Vodafone to add 241,000 net new customers, the network's best quarter since it began operations in 1985. Vodafone said its chain of 250 stores accounted for 54,000 new subscribers in December alone.

One2One, the network owned by Cable & Wireless and US West, continued its recent strong performance with 206,000 net new subscribers in the final quarter, 142 per cent above the same period in 1996. Tim Samples, One2One's managing director, said the group was launching a pounds 3.2m post- Christmas advertising campaign, emphasising that its network now covered 95 per cent of the UK population.

"One2One was known as the M25 network. It will take time to erase that image," he said.

The other two networks, Cellnet and Orange, trailed the two market leaders, adding 149,000 and 130,000 net new subscribers. However, Orange claimed the price cuts by Vodafone and One2One could have attracted lower-spending customers.

Graham Howe, Orange's finance director, added that Vodafone's figures were inflated by the group's pay-as-you-go service, which uses older analogue network. Some 68,000 of Vodafone's net new subscribers took up the service, compared to 15,000 who bought Orange's digital pre-payment service.

But Terry Barwick, Vodafone's corporate affairs director, said that, even excluding the pre-payment service, the network had added 173,000 digital customers.

Separately yesterday Vodafone confirmed a pounds 267m deal to buy 26.5 per cent of Libertel, the Dutch mobile operator, taking its stake in the group to a controlling 61.5 per cent.