How difficult is it to ensure millions of Londoners get decent mobile coverage… even at Winter Wonderland?
Even on a normal day, London is a busy, bustling metropolis, but over the Christmas and New Year period, the crowds intensify and major events take place, putting the capital’s mobile infrastructure under intense strain.
The importance of London, home to many large businesses, to Vodafone has been mentioned many times by the firm’s executives. Nearly a quarter of the data traffic on its network comes from the capital – a figure which increases to 60 percent for 4G. Around 90 Terabytes of data is consumed by Londoners each day.
This means Vodafone has to think beyond the macro network to ensure its customers receive a good service.
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is immensely popular, with fairground rides, stalls and Bavarian beer halls attracting tens of thousands of visitors each winter. That’s a lot of people checking Facebook, sharing photos and trying to contact friends and family they’re trying to meet.
This is a challenge for Vodafone, which has set up a mobile base station at the event in a bid to boost coverage and ensure its customers can send selfies of themselves with mulled wine. The base station has all the equipment you’d expect from a normal control room and can deliver all frequencies.
One of the biggest challenges is getting power, which might not be readily available in a remote area. The base station in Hyde Park is powered by a diesel generator which must be continually topped up manually.
Vodafone explained that sometimes event organisers approach the operators themselves in which case it’s often multi-operator, but in other cases they ask for permission. This, Vodafone’s Rob Matthews said, helps differentiate one network from another.
“These are the things that differentiate us from Telefonica,” he said, referring to the ‘Project Beacon’ site sharing agreement with O2. Everyday users might not be aware of the additional coverage at one-off events like Winter Wonderland, but if Vodafone does enough special events, customers might begin to take notice and stay with the operator, fearful that they might not be able to use their phone at the football if they switch network.
“We can’t do every single event because that would bust the budget,” Matthews noted.
But it’s not just visitors that need the extra coverage. Without the mobile base station in place, Winter Wonderland would suck up all the coverage surrounding Hyde Park, leaving residents unable to use their phone at home.
While someone visiting Winter Wonderland for an afternoon might be able to cope without having signal for a few hours, people who live in the area would have to go without for a whole month – and potentially leave Vodafone.
Additional masts on buildings, such as hotels, also help to boost coverage, but sometimes it’s difficult to gain access to the sites needed. When Vodafone wants to upgrade a mast, it must negotiate with the landlord. It wants the Electronic Communications Code to make it easier to perform upgrades, in line with other utilities like gas and electricity.
In October, Vodafone said it needed access to an additional 1,000 sites to ensure its service can cope with demand, noting that London has 2.5 antennas per kilometre comparted to the 6.3 Madrid can boast of. It wants local authorities to open up their rooftops to help resolve the situation.
The company is embarking on a multi-billion pound upgrade of its network, with rural areas benefiting from femtocells and high density locations such as shopping centres and skyscrapers earmarked for small cells. It has hoped that beam forming technology will allow Vodafone to move coverage around its network when demand is high.
O2 is also looking at smart networks, with a self-optimising network (SON) trial at Tottenham Court Road allowing it to analyse customer use and make remote changes, such as to tilt antennas, if needed. It also devotes additional resources to ‘special events’ like the London 2012 Olympics and university campuses, which experience a surge in demand at the end of the summer holidays.
EE is boosting speeds using carrier aggregation, while Three is rolling out additional spectrum which should see its network becoming 40 percent faster. Offloading is also seen as a way of helping satisfy demand in cities, with BT developing ‘converged’ networks that will hand off traffic from cellular infrastructure onto BT Wi-Fi.
But how does Vodafone compare to its rivals in London? Research firm RootMetrics has reported Vodafone has the second fastest download speeds,but significantly behind EE, while more recent testing from P3 suggested Vodafone offered the best overall network in London, albeit slower than some of its rivals.
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