At big events, coverage is an issue. James Hattam discusses what service providers can do to keep the public connected
2012 is shaping up to be quite a year for the UK – with challenges for mobile coverage.
We have already enjoyed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, England’s involvement in Euro 2012 and Wimbledon. The music festival season is now in full voice, the England cricket team is playing South Africa in between rain showers and there is also the small matter of the Olympics bringing a festival of sport to the UK.
People have always wanted to share their experiences when attending a major event. In the past that might have meant increased use of voice and texts but now it is all of that and more – video and photo sharing apps all integrated with social media, all taking place across the internet. The pressure on the network to perform is greater than ever and the volumes of data are growing exponentially.
Leaping traffic hurdles
Smart phone penetration in the UK (which currently stands at 51 per cent) is a major factor in this. People have smart phones and they intend to use them.
The audience for mobile social media apps is also growing four times faster than use of their PC-based alternatives, telling us people are tweeting and posting video and photos from events that are still happening, rather than leisurely uploading thoughts and images hours or even days after the event.
This results in major, localised peaks in demand on the network. So when it comes to providing a high-quality mobile network at large-scale events, these factors are combining to create a perfect storm for operators.
Not all mobile networks are created equal but all are designed to cope with the mobile traffic expected over the course of an average day. However large scale events, such as those mentioned above are not average days.
During the Jubilee Pageant, for example, when many visitors to London will have been posting photos online and using mapping services to get around the capital, parts of the T-Mobile network saw a 65 per cent increase in mobile traffic compared to the week before and a 20 per cent increase in 3G data downloads.
Take the opening weekend of the Olympics as an example, which saw a 75 percent increase in the amount of data downloaded at key Olympic and transport hubs, as well as a tenfold increase in the amount of data used in the Greenwich area.
This is analogous to an A road suddenly having to cope with heavy motorway traffic. So how do operators keep the traffic flowing?
It largely comes down to planning and preparation, involving many person hours and large dedicated teams of engineers. The first step lies in understanding the capacity requirements for the event. This involves analysis of capacity requirements for past years, and number crunching around the number of attendees expected for the current year. Only once this is understood can engineers visit the site and review the existing network capabilities.
In nearly all cases the network will require augmentation due to the thousands of additional users in relatively small geographic locations. To build up capacity, operators can do one of two things:
- Increase the capacity of the existing network cells
- Provide additional temporary cells
The first involves engineers making hardware and software upgrades to the cell sites required to service the event. For the second, mobile base stations are driven into events as an integrated unit of a truck (see picture) – very similar to the outside broadcast units used by television networks. These are positioned in optimum places around the site.
In both cases it is necessary to install temporary microwave links to backhaul the mobile traffic. Backhaul connects the traffic collected from the radio masts to the rest of the network, including the internet.
The microwave band is well suited to transmitting signals with large bandwidth at high speed and is therefore ideal for providing additional capacity at major public events.
Providing such additional technology is not without its difficulties: from negotiating with landlords and event organisers to dealing with rain-sodden locations, as Orange has learned over the course of many successful Glastonbury Festivals, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to ensure customers have the best mobile experience possible.
Finally, some events require not only an increase in capacity, but also an improvement in coverage.
This is particularly important for indoor events such as concerts or fashion shows where the building can sometimes block network signals.
Here operators can provide small network cells which simply plug into a broadband network to provide small coverage ‘bubbles’ within a building. Alternatively, an operator can deploy a repeater cell. This is an antenna which is placed on the roof of a building and works by amplifying the existing network coverage in the local area.
Today’s mobile users are more demanding than ever. Their ambitions and expectations drive us on to cater for an increasing demand on the network.
It does not matter to the consumer that they are sharing their network with tens of thousands of other users. That is our problem and it is a good problem to have because a network which can handle the extraordinary should be the ambition of every operator in the UK.
James Hattam is director of service management at Everything Everywhere,