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Virgin Media Business To Offer Small Cell Wholesale Service

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

Virgin Media Business is offering small cell networks to ease mobile operators’ capacity burden

Virgin Media Business is now offering mobile operators, struggling with data capacity problems on their own 3G networks, the chance to offload the traffic onto its small cell networks.

This follows successful small cell trials in Bristol and Newcastle by Virgin Media Business, that managed to deliver mobile internet speeds three times faster than current 3G networks in UK.

Successful Trials

Small cells are essentially small mobile phone towers or basestations, and are typically installed in retail locations (such as large shopping centres or small coffee shops), or on street furniture (lamposts, buildings etc), as a way to increase the capacity of the mobile phone network in that particular location. It differs from Wi-Fi networks as it is able to deliver “more robust” connectivity and the traffic is handled using 3G mobile radio technology, so phones don’t have to switch to Wi-Fi.

transmitter radio rural © Gudellaphoto - Fotolia.comVirgin Media Business said that its successful LTE-ready small cell trial in Bristol and Newcastle was able to deliver data speeds of up to 90 Mbps, three times faster than that of existing 3G networks, both inside buildings and outside in public spaces. The small cells were connected back into Virgin Media’s fibre optic network, “to ensure super-fast connectivity.”

The company had earlier in the year carried out private 4G tests in Oxford Street in London using small cells, that led to speculation at the time that it was considering the launch of a nationwide wireless network of small cells, linked to its fibre network. It also reportedly considered a free Wi-Fi ‘metro’ network for Londoners.

A spokesman for Virgin Media Business confirmed to Techweek Europe that the company is now offering a wholesale service to mobile operators, to allow them to offload traffic onto its small cell networks.

“We’re incredibly excited to be at the very forefront of small cell radio access network trials,” said Kevin Baughan, director of wireless, Virgin Media Business. “In the future, cities will demand even faster connectivity and with mobile broadband set for explosive growth, small cells are offering a way forward that will rise to the challenge of superfast connectivity on the move.”

Capacity Solution?

Virgin Media is not alone in thinking that trials such as these are important because it demonstrates how small cells will be able to deal with mobile broadband capacity in certain locations.

Demand for mobile data is at an all-time high and consumers want faster speeds and more reliable connections,” said Dr Simon Saunders, director of technology for Real Wireless, an independent research company that has carried out an analysis of the performance and validity of the LTE small cells trial.

4G connectivity is eagerly waiting in the wings, but small cells can also dramatically improve the performance of 3G networks in the interim,” Dr Saunders said. “We’re still in the early stages of understanding what this technology can do, but these trials show that small cells have the potential to supercharge internet connectivity and deliver a sustainable solution to today’s mobile bottleneck.”

Small Market

But not everyone is convinced that things will be so rosy. Market research firm Infonetics Research in its latest ‘Small Cell Equipment’ report, says that the small cell market will thrive, but will not be big enough for all the contenders who want to play in it.

“In terms of units, yes, small cell numbers can be big, but don’t get too excited – there are a lot of serious issues that need to be resolved, and some that cannot be resolved,” cautioned Stéphane Téral, principal analyst for mobile infrastructure and carrier economics at Infonetics.

“Let’s say an operator has thousands of small cells; how do you manage them all? How do you backhaul them?” Téral asked. “When we talk to carriers, backhaul is always the biggest issue. And then of course they have to get interference under control. Don’t get me wrong; there is no question that a small cell market exists and it is growing fast. But the volumes will not be high enough to support the number of vendors trying to get into the small cell space. There is no ‘El Dorado’ in small cells. A vendor battle is looming and not everyone is going to win.”

Virgin Media of course has the backhaul issue mostly covered thanks to its large fibre optic network in the UK. However it worth noting that its fibre network reach is limited to towns and cities, and certainly not semi rural or rural areas.

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