Small cells could be the answer to mobile performance

Virgin Media Business is hoping to wholesale its fibre broadband to mobile operators so they can incorporate small cells into their networks and boost mobile signal

The focus of the mobile industry of late has been ensuring the roll-out of 4G begins. However, with only one mobile network operator (MNO) capable of providing the faster network until at least the middle of next year, operators are always on the look out for ways to boost their own performance.

Even when 4G does become available to all, they will have to battle against increasing amount of data clogging up their networks and think of ways to fill any gaps in service they have to keep customers content.  

There may be competing views on the best way to achieve this, but Virgin Media Business is gambling on a mixture of small cells and its own fibre broadband network, hoping MNOs will get on board.

Virgin already has a well-established broadband network in the majority of the UK’s large cities. It is proposing to MNOs to utilise this network in parts of the cities where there might be a gap in its coverage.

The ISP will run its fibre up lamp-posts in these "not spot" zones and attach a small cell to the top, roughly eight metres above the ground. The one connected cell can then mesh with four or five further cells in the area.

These installations link the fibre connectivity from Virgin with the MNO’s spectrum allocations and, in turn, boost the strength of the signal for users within reach of the cell.

Testing the technology

Virgin has been trialing the technology in Bristol and Newcastle, with the help of both local councils and network equipment manufacturers – including Alcatel Lucent, Airspan and Ruckus – and plans to offer it as a service to MNOs, providing all the equipment and infrastructure necessary to link with their networks.

The trials found the technology enabled speeds to break 90Mbps, working both out on the streets and inside buildings too.  

“A lot of people have been doubtful as to whether these small cells can get the signal inside buildings because that is where you are busy [and need the connection],” said Kevin Baughan, director of metro wireless at Virgin Media Business. “So the real test hasn’t been the speeds – they have been impressive but you could have heard that from any LTE announcement. The more important thing has been getting into the buildings successfully.”

As the trials were conducted on the 2.6GHz spectrum – due to be auctioned by Ofcom in December for 4G use – the doubts were justified as the higher the spectrum band, the less well it travels through walls.

But, even though some buildings were more resilient to others, users were still able to get boosted signals inside from up to 500m away from the small cell site.

The small cells made by Alcatel Lucent won particular praise from Baughan, who said the design not only proved the technology, but helped in getting past some of the more practical deployment issues.  

“With Alcatel Lucent the thing we really love is, it is really small,” he said. “One of the things [local councils] worry about in their planning departments is whether [these technologies] are something you can attach to the lamp-post without offending [residents].

“If you think where equipment used to be, when it was big and ugly, it is lovely it’s coming down to quite small units and if they are mounted up on a lamp-post, you don’t even notice they are there.

“It is like a lot of the progression of technology,” Baughan added. “It gets smaller and more powerful. Although you can’t replace those big, ugly base-stations because you need the macros to give the basic coverage, it wouldn’t be cost-efficient to use these as you would need too many. But you can place [cells] where the high demand is, and you can build a capacity layer in between the coverage layer, therefore really giving people the performance they need.”

Councils pleased

Both Bristol and Newcastle City Councils were pleased with how the trials had gone and pledged to remove as many of the barriers as possible, such as planning permission, when it came to rolling the technology out.

They even said they were willing to contribute money they had been awarded by central government as part of the Connected Cities programme to pay for some of the deployments, as long as it benefited their residents.

However, the ones who really have to want to play are the MNOs.

“Our goal would be to wholesale it to them,” said Baughan. “They then run it with their spectrum, as this isn’t about us getting into the spectrum game, this is about us wholesaling the infrastructure so that the mobile operators can do this and then they can choose where it is deployed in a city to meet their requirements.”

“We have got a lot of history with MNOs as we do a lot of the backhaul to the big masts, so Virgin Media Business already has quite a momentum and this is about moving that to the next stage and being able to do the next piece of the puzzle.”

The executive claimed it was in talks with all the major UK operators and said the discussions were going well, adding there would be no point in taking the technology further if no one was interested.

However, no contracts have been signed at this point and Virgin is waiting for an MNO to give it the go ahead to build a more substantial small cell deployment.

Spectrum allocation

Baughan is confident this will happen as early as next year though and give any MNO waiting for its spectrum allocation for 4G a real boost.

“We will start next year with 3G, as the technology isn’t specific to 4G,” he said. “Why would you worry if you [have got a consistent] 3G signal? It is not replacing spectrum but it allows operators to get going next year to deliver more capacity, have happier customers and then still add 4G and all the other pieces as well.”

“All the mobile operators are really interested in this because all of them are facing the same issue. Even Everything Everywhere (EE) is faced with the same issue because it can create a new long term evolution (LTE) service, but it still has a lot of 3G customers and they need to be happy too.”

“However, it is a very new market and we have to work out how to work with the cities to gain access to the lamp-posts, we have to work out with the mobile operators what this business is worth and everybody has got to benefit,” added Baughan.

Virgin is likely to face competition in the market as BT obviously has the fibre assets and other ISPs might want to get in on the game.

Yet it is the only ISP making a lot of noise about the technology, and seems to believe it will give it the advantage.

Baughan concluded: “I think we are ahead. There are others in the space – it is obvious that BT could do the same in this space, or others could bring all the pieces together – but we like to think we are ahead.”

“I think that is the chance for us to be more innovative and tackle it with aggression. It’s about taking that tremendous broadband experience and making it possible on mobiles.”

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