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Vodafone CrowdCell To ‘Localise’ Mobile Network Coverage

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Small cells can be inserted into cars, drones and buildings to improve local mobile coverage

Vodafone has created a small cell to expand mobile coverage into more localised areas such as concerts, cars, buildings and even drones.

Vodafone is calling its new open access small cell ‘CrowdCell’, and it is currently being trailed in Spain and Turkey.

The development comes after O2 said earlier this year that it would deploy more than 1,400 small cells across London to boost capacity and lay the foundations for 5G services from 2020.

Vodafone-logo

Small Cells

The use of small cells is nothing particularly new. Two years ago experts at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs predicted the world would need billions of small cells to increase mobile coverage and provide improved network capacity.

Indeed, Vodafone itself in 2014 said it would deploy small cells at bus stops, billboards and other street furniture to improve network coverage through a deal with JCDecaux, the world’s largest outdoor advertising company.

And now according to Vodafone, being able to provide customers with faster download speeds and more reliable mobile communications as networks evolve from 4G to 4.5G and then to 5G, entails the use “in part by using low power small cell sites to support the macro network (e.g. mobile towers).”

However small cells in the past have presented two challenges: firstly, small cells need to connect to a dedicated communications network, such as DSL, microwave links or fibre, to link back (backhaul) to the operator’s core network. The second problem has been the rental costs of sites where small cells can be located (such as lampposts and bus stops) can be prohibitive.

In order to overcomes these issues, Vodafone’s CrowdCell is an open-access small cell which uses the macro 4G network as backhaul. This means it can simply connected to the 4G network, without having to be wired up to the backhaul.

“CrowdCells are also secure, using an embedded SIM to identify themselves on a network, and can be rolled out quickly as they require no special provisions,” said Vodafone. “In Spain and Turkey we are successfully trialling CrowdCells in the premises of customers needing better coverage. In that sense, the CrowdCell unit, which has been manufactured for us by Huawei, is acting similarly to a repeater which would traditionally be used to boost indoor coverage.”

Unlike repeaters however, the CrowdCell will not cause interference. Vodafone says that a CrowdCell Controller will “harmonise the usage of all of the CrowdCells deployed in an area to optimise the customer experience.”

And Vodafone sees a healthy future for CrowdCells thanks to their flexibility, which makes it “much easier for Vodafone to deliver the best service where and when our customers need it.”

Femtocells Anyone?

However it is worth remembering that we have been here before.

Vodafone for example in 2011 was a big backer of femtocell trails for rural communities located in so called ‘mobile not-spots‘.

Indeed, as far back as 2009 Vodafone first offers its customers the chance to install a femtocell (Sure Signal) in their own house to help customers struggling to get a mobile phone signal inside their own homes.

Femtocells used to look like a home router, but can now be plugged straight into a plug socket. Vodafone still sells these devices, costing £69.

They do however require a fixed line broadband connection.

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