Vodafone Extends Rural Femtocell Trial

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Vodafone will extend its femtocell trial into more ‘not-spot’ rural communities, to improve 3G coverage

Vodafone UK is looking to extend its femtocell trail for those rural communities living in so called ‘mobile not-spots‘.

The mobile operator is seeking 12 communities to take part in its rural mobile coverage trials, using ‘open femto’ technology to provide vital connectivity, including mobile internet, to help rural economies battling with poor broadband and 3G signal coverage.

The call for volunteers comes just days after Ofcom released a report detailing the poor state of the UK’s communications infrastructure, both fixed-line and mobile. It found that 3G coverage, for example, was concentrated in urban areas (i.e. towns and cities) with rural communities often missing out.

The Ofcom report revealed that 2G signals only reach 66 percent of the entire country, and that 3G signals are only reaching a staggeringly poor 13 percent of the British landmass.

Vodafone Trials

In an effort to tackle these mobile not-spots, Vodafone is proposing 12 new trials for community-wide femtocells, which will start early in 2012. The operator says the trails will build on its experience gained in a continuing pilot programme in the West Berkshire village of East Garston.

“These trials present a very real opportunity for rural communities to play a positive role in extending mobile coverage locally,” said the operator. “Vodafone is looking for local politicians, communities and the Government to work with the company to improve access to the mobile internet.”

Vodafone is working with its technology partner, Alcatel-Lucent on these trials, which it hopes will allow the operator to explore ways to fill these not-spots. Vodafone said it will test the latest version of femtocell technology that can provide 3G signals in local areas, as well as experiment with the use of other forms of infrastructure and local residential broadband projects.

In the East Garston trial, Vodafone has been working closely with BT, by locating its femtocells on some BT payphones, as well as its telephone poles. It hopes to replicate this co-operation for these new trails.

“Bringing mobile coverage to communities can make a huge difference to people’s lives,” said Communications Minister Ed Vaizey. “That is why the Government has pledged £150 million to extending mobile coverage. It is good to see Vodafone looking for innovative ways to bring mobile coverage to rural areas. Anything that increases mobile coverage is to be welcomed. I urge areas without mobile coverage to get involved and see if this trial is suitable for them.”

Sure Signal

Vodafone is one of the few operators in the UK to offer femtocells to customers in order to solve the vexing issue of poor mobile phone reception in both homes and offices.

Its femtocell, known as Vodafone Sure Signal, is available relatively cheaply from the operator, and while it does completely transform the mobile phone signal within a building, it only works with Vodafone handsets.

“Hundreds of thousands of people across the country use Vodafone Sure Signal every day to boost their 3G signal at home,” said Guy Laurence, chief executive of Vodafone UK. “Now we are extending this ground-breaking femtocell technology to make a real difference to rural communities.”

“Bringing mobile coverage and the benefits of the mobile internet to rural areas involves not just us, but local people, politicians and other infrastructure players all working together,” he added. “We are confident that everyone will step up and help give rural communities a real boost and look forward to extending our trial.”

The Reality

Despite the grand sounding rhetoric from both the Government and Vodafone, mobile phone signal coverage and indeed fixed-line broadband provision, remains a hit and miss affair once outside the major population areas.

In August, the BBC’s crowdsourced survey revealed that a 3G signal is generally unavailable 25 percent of the time in Britain, despite billions of pounds worth of investment in the technology. The problem is especially bad in rural areas, where 2G handsets often deliver better performance than modern smartphones.

It is hoped that Ofcom’s auction of 800MHz spectrum for 4G mobile services will help to extend mobile coverage to rural areas, as more than three million people are still living in mobile not-spots.

However, the 4G spectrum auction has been delayed amid operator bickering, and there is some concern that 4G services will not extend beyond the existing 3G mobile coverage areas.

In July, Ofcom also faced criticism over the poor state of mobile coverage in rural areas. To be fair, Ofcom is evaluating many different options for solving the problem of providing both a decent mobile signal and broadband service to rural areas.

Back in May, MPs debated the 4G auction and said that 4G technologies could play a crucial role in extending broadband provision to rural areas. In the end, 105 MPs signed a motion calling for action to counter the so called ‘digital divide.’

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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