MOBILE phone operator Orange added 3.6 million customers to its network last year, largely thanks to services such as games and photo messaging.

Orange, which is majority owned by France Telecom, said the total number of people using its network rose nine per cent to 44.4 million.

Graham Howe, deputy chief executive and chief operating officer, said: "These are good numbers, very much in line with our expectations, and showing Orange's continuing momentum."

But the firm had to cut 1,000 staff globally at the end of last year in an effort to streamline costs and improve profits.

Orange, which has 5,000 staff in the North-East, has kept pace with rivals such as Vodafone by introducing handsets with games and in-built cameras.

Operators are keen to create a fresh wave of sales growth among existing customers as the market for new users approaches saturation point.

Mr Howe said: "Penetration levels across Europe are high, yet Orange continues to strengthen its market position and remains strongly focused on generating further growth by driving average customer usage, revenue and loyalty, hence building customer lifetime value."