Vodafone Uses Open Femto to Fill Shetland 3G Not-Spot

The remote Shetland Isles community of Walls has 3G coverage, thanks to a Vodafone-built network which uses small base stations called “open femtocells” to share broadband Internet connections with the surrounding area.

Four small 3G base stations known as femtocells have been attached to the outside of local businesses, and provide a mobile signal for people within about 250 metres, which links back to Vodafone’s network across the Internet. Walls is one of the first trials of the system, which Vodafone says could be repeated by other rural communities who have wired broadband, but poor 3G signal.

Femto flexes its muscle

“There was no shortage of communities that wanted this trial, even within Shetland, and the fact that Walls have been able to bring it here is something for which the community itself deserves recognition and congratulation,” said MP Alistair Carmichael (on the left in Vodafone’s launch picture), as reported by Shetland News.  “This will potentially make a real difference to communities like this, not just here, if we can make this technology work across the whole of the country.”

The ruggedised femtocells in the trial are similar to the units Vodafone offers in its SureSignal scheme, where small 3G cells plug into home broadband services, to provide improved 3G coverage within the home, using the broadband as backhaul.

In Walls, four femtocells are installed on the public hall, the Wastview care centre, Happyhansel primary school and Shetland Mussels Ltd (shown in our lead image). Each one can support up to eight calls.

Mobile signal could be a help for local businesses. “People don’t understand about the lack of mobile signal here. Our fishmonger in Billingsgate Market in London can’t understand why he can’t get through. The seafood trade is fast-moving, and if a buyer can’t get hold of you straightaway they’ll move on to the next supplier,” Michael Tait, of Shetland Mussels, told Shetland News. “Before I had to be in the office or lose business; this has made a big change for us.”

Assuming the trial is successful, future open femto installations could be much quicker and easier, as the tiny base stations do not need planning permission. They use Vodafone’s licensed spectrum, bolt onto the side of a building and use about £20 worth of electricity in a year. The only other thing they need is a decent broadband connection to hook onto.

That’s one aspect to the scheme, where Walls actually had a headstart and other places may struggle. The project works in Walls because Shetland has a fast fibre connection, installed with European support. The scheme won’t work so well in 3G notspots where fibre broadband speeds aren’t available.

“We hope it will not only help keep people in touch but also boost the local economy,” said Vodafone’s regional manager for Scotland John McCracken (second from the left).

The picture also shows Doug Forrest and Ian Walterson, local village champions.

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Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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