Orange - the British mobile-phone group 49 per cent owned by Hutchison Whampoa - has revealed a bold plan to build a worldwide presence. The plan involves extending the group's brand name to as many different countries as possible and building on its position in countries where it already has a presence. Releasing its 1998 results yesterday, the company reported its first full-year operating profit since its launch in April 1994. Orange announced a GBP15.4 million (about HK$192.11 million) profit on turnover up 33 per cent to GBP1.21 billion. The group's pre-tax losses of GBP98.1 million - 28 per cent up on 1997 - were also better than expected, and the company reported its customer base had jumped 80 per cent to 2.16 million customers. Orange confirmed yesterday it was keen to rapidly develop its presence in other countries this year and said it was 'currently exploring a range of opportunities to leverage its market position in both the French and German market'. The statement came as speculation mounted that Orange had been holding talks with Germany's smallest mobile-phone group, E-Plus. Orange said it had also been in discussions with German utility and telecoms groups such as Viag, RWE and Veba, as well as France's third-largest telecom firm Bouygues Telecom. Orange deputy chief executive and finance director Graham Howe said the talks were aimed at establishing the group as the world's first so-called virtual network operator. He said that under the plan, which he said would place Orange somewhere between a service provider and a network provider, the group would lease spectrum capacity from existing mobile-phone operators in different countries, then inject new investment to build billing systems and information-technology platforms, differentiating itself from existing operators. The service would be branded under the Orange name and would operate in competition with existing services. Mr Howe said this was potentially attractive to mobile-phone operators targeted by Orange as they would see an instant return on their allocation of spectrum. 'We want to be the first to establish one of these,' he said. The group has already started building a more international image by licensing its brand in different countries, both through successful bids to run new mobile services in Switzerland and Belgium and by allowing its name to be used in Hong Kong and Israel, where Hutchison Whampoa has been establishing mobile-phone networks. Mr Howe said customers were now able to use their phone in 84 countries around the world and have access to 157 networks. Analysts believe Orange's ambitions to be a virtual network operator are most easily achievable in France and Germany, as the company already operates wholly owned cellular service provision companies. In France, Bouygues Telecom is seen as a leading contender as British telecoms group Cable & Wireless has been looking to sell its 20 per cent stake. Such an acquisition for Orange would bolster its position in France, where Hutchison Telecom France has seen sluggish growth as more network operators bypass service providers to reach customers. Hutchison Telecom Germany has been growing faster by concentrating on small and medium-sized businesses. Orange said yesterday that, overall, there had been a threefold increase in its earnings before interest, depreciation, tax and amortisation to GBP147.5 million, and that its margins had more than doubled from 5.1 per cent to 12.1 per cent. Orange saw its share in the four-player British market rise to 16.6 per cent from 14.2 per cent, but it revealed that its contract average revenue per subscriber had dipped to GBP483 from GBP489. The youngest entrant to the British market, Orange reported that churn had risen to 18.1 per cent from 15.2 per cent last year, although this is still well below the industry average churn rate of more than 28 per cent.