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How mobile operators can cope with staycation boom and sport lockdowns lifting

The periods of lockdown implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic led to new mobile network traffic patterns. How can operators adapt to shifting consumer behaviours and continue delivering high-quality experiences?

The lockdowns implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic saw a far higher proportion of people working and learning from home than ever before, which inevitably led to new network traffic patterns.

Now that the UK hopes to have turned a corner and begins to stage large-scale sporting events with in-person attendance once again, mobile network operators such as EE, O2, Three and Vodafone operators will need to manage their networks carefully to satisfy demand from tens of thousands of people gathering in stadiums, parks and pubs. Whether following England’s cricket series against India or the new football season, sports fans in large groups will expect seamless connectivity at event venues.

In addition to sports resuming action, many holidaymakers are shunning traditional jaunts to the Mediterranean in favour of less glamorous but safer “staycations” in the UK. The question then becomes: how can operators best prepare for large numbers of city dwellers decamping to rural beauty spots and smaller coastal towns to ensure their networks are able to cope with a likely surge in demand around the country? 

Ahead of the staycation boom, operators have taken proactive measures to satisfy the extra strain their networks are likely to experience. EE recently announced that it has upgraded the capacity of its 4G network at nine coastal resorts, switched on its 5G network in another nine coastal towns, and will make upgrades in 16 more locations later this summer.

The enhanced 4G coverage also forms an integral part of the UK’s new Emergency Services Network, which provides critical communications for first responder and emergency service agencies, enabling them to stay connected while fulfilling their vital public safety roles.

In another move to help those remaining in the UK on holiday, Vodafone revealed that it is expanding its 4G service in two sites in the South West, the UK’s most popular staycation destination. The carrier is using Open RAN technology (more on that below) at those locations, which changes the way an operator builds and manages networks, adding flexibility and reducing costs.

To further improve service, Vodafone has made 5G available in Plymouth and on the Isles of Scilly, and a forthcoming installation of a 5G mobile private network at Plymouth Sound is intended to help improve connectivity for businesses in the area. 

To tackle another holiday-related area in need of an upgrade, Vodafone has improved coverage across some of the UK’s most well-travelled motorway routes. Operators are aware of the need to improve holidaymakers’ experience during the journey to and from their destinations this summer, as O2 showed just before the spring bank holiday when it stated that it expected spikes in 4G and 5G mobile data traffic along the UK’s motorways.

Indeed, a survey commissioned by O2 found that 77% of respondents planned to rely on mobile devices to keep passengers entertained on the journey, while more than one-third of cars would contain at least four mobile devices. Two-thirds of those surveyed thought a strong signal and fast data speeds improve the experience of summer road trips.

O2 said it had witnessed record levels of data usage over the previous 12 months, with nearly 90% more data carried this year compared with its pre-pandemic average two years ago, although a significant amount of that extra data was due to organic growth.

Challenge of staycation hotspots and large crowds

With consumers today using data services more than ever before and expecting high-speed connectivity at all times, operators have constantly invested in improving their networks. The UK’s recent spectrum auction is a prime example, with all four operators boosting their spectrum holdings, whether by acquiring more mid-band spectrum to offer an optimal blend of speed plus coverage, and/or by adding low-band spectrum to expand coverage in general, including into rural areas.

That said, managing user expectations for flawless connectivity can be difficult to satisfy when users travel in large numbers to holiday destinations or sporting events, all of which increases demand on nearby masts.

Faced with large crowds, mobile networks must manage voice and data traffic volumes that are often orders of magnitude higher than during normal periods. Although operators can use portable base stations to temporarily increase capacity, in conjunction with free Wi-Fi access points to offload internet traffic from mobile base stations, large crowds still present significant challenges for network operators looking to reduce dropped calls, improve internet speeds and provide good connectivity in general.

Operators are also faced with providing good service to the growing number of relatively remote staycation hotspots, which, until recently, are often areas where the networks typically do not prioritise service.

Open RAN to add flexibility to networks

With Vodafone bringing 4G service to users on Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula with Open Radio Access Networks or Open RAN, the technology could be used elsewhere if staycations continue to remain the norm. Open RAN allows operators to combine equipment from multiple suppliers to form key components of a mobile network. The technology offers several benefits, such as diversifying the supply chain, increasing flexibility, adding innovation, and equipping networks with new capabilities and services.

Other advantages of Open RAN include the ability to program and automate a network, allowing operators to release new features simultaneously across several sites, increase or redirect capacity more quickly and quickly deal with problems, such as drops in coverage.

Multi-user MIMO or MU-MIMO is another potential option for addressing increasing user demands for great connectivity in areas of heavy congestion, although it is probably a few years away from seeing widespread usage. In short, MU-MIMO technology can provide reliable and fast service to large groups of people – and all without adding more spectrum.

Single-user MIMO (or just MIMO) is an acronym for multiple input, multiple output. MIMO refers to using multiple radio antennas at both the tower and the device, and can help minimise transmission errors and improve capacity, coverage and speed. MU-MIMO, on the other hand, is antenna technology that allows the same block of spectrum to be shared among multiple users without sacrificing performance.

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In short, the primary benefit of MU-MIMO is that it allows mobile operators to reuse their current spectrum and infrastructure to serve multiple users, all without any significant performance degradation. Although MU-MIMO is still in its infancy, the technology is filled with exciting potential and could be particularly valuable for providing great service at football matches and other areas of heavy usage.

While all four major UK operators’ spectrum holdings currently consist of mid-band and/or low-band spectrum for 5G, the addition of millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum in the future could provide a boost to both speeds and capacity. The key benefit of mmWave is that it is fast – very fast, with theoretical speeds up to 5Gbps – whereas the downside of mmWave is that it offers coverage over limited geographic areas.

That said, the very “downside” of mmWave makes it ideal for delivering fast speeds at sporting events, busy city centres and other areas of high traffic. While mmWave is currently not an option for mobile operators in the UK, that could change going forward, providing operators with another means of offering strong service at sporting events, as well as at staycation favourites.

Some UK mobile network operators have already taken proactive steps to boost the capacity of their 4G networks and switched on 5G in new coastal locations to help alleviate the pressures created by holidaymakers on staycation. To remain competitive, others are likely to follow suit. All operators will probably continue upgrading their infrastructure going forward, while also potentially employing some of the strategies discussed above in order to help manage the increased strain on networks as lockdowns continue to ease.

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