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Mobile network capacity problems can be solved by 'small cells' - Virgin

Wednesday, December 10th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Small cell technology – shoebox-sized mobile masts mounted on street furniture – will play a key part in taking the pressure off straining mobile networks, according to a Virgin Media Business expert.

Bruce Girdlestone, senior business development manager at the firm, said the technology will make the most of the current mobile spectrum as part of a solution to issues of congestion.

Mobile providers are looking at solutions to deal with capacity problems as networks struggle to deal with increasing demands from more and more devices connecting to them, and using data-hungry services.

They include small cells – low-powered radio access nodes mounted on street furniture – which effectively create an extra layer in the mobile network, concentrating signal to give a better experience for people on their devices.

The small cell unit, roughly the size of a shoe box, is attached to a street column like a lamppost or CCTV pole, which also provides the power to operate it.

It then connects back to Virgin Media’s fibre network to provide a fast connection to the core of the mobile network.

The technology, which Virgin has tested with a number of partners in some of the first trials to take place in the UK, is hoped to be more robust than wi-fi.

Explaining how small cells work, Mr Girdlestone told Cable.co.uk: “What they will do is infill, not for coverage but for capacity, in areas of high footfall where there is a lot of demand for capacity.”

Buying more spectrum can be an expensive solution to the growing demand for capacity, he said, and small cells help use the current spectrum more effectively.

“In a very simplistic way if you imagine a macro cell which covers maybe 3km radius and you’ve got a fixed amount of spectrum on macro cells, and you’ve got 1,000 people using it, by using a small cell which can use a same amount of spectrum, in say a 300m radius for 100 people, 100 people are able to share that spectrum which before was being used by 1,000 people.

“Effectively there becomes a limit [to what you can do with the current spectrum on macro cells] so what you have to do is start to split up your spectrum into smaller and smaller chunks so you can share it among a smaller number of people, which means that they all get a bigger piece of the cake.”

Ideally suited to city centres

“The lifeblood of every mobile operator is spectrum and it’s about using that much more effectively.

Small cells are ideally suited to city centres and areas where there is a high density of people and high footfall, Mr Girdlestone said.

“It’s hitting our sweet spot where we have very dense fibre networks in all the cities around the UK.

“For us it’s a great fit between the requirement to put it on street furniture and where our network sits and where we have a lot of fibre and we’re able to provide a great service.”

The technology will improve user experience and become part of a collection of solutions helping people stay constantly connected, said Mr Girdlestone. “If you look at some of the macro trends in the market, one of those is mobility. People are expecting to be connected wherever they are, not just in their house.

“One of the key things is not now connecting a premises, it’s connecting people. “

And the said there was no reason why small cells can’t work alongside wi-fi and other developments such as 4G and 5G to provide people with a “seamless” experience, no matter where they are.

“I think what will happen is small cells, 4G and 5G, and wi-fi will improve and it will become much more seamless to the end user.

“So they will just consume data over the spectrum and they won’t even know whether it’s over wi-fi or cellular services.

He added: “With that and with 4G and then ultimately 5G from like 2020 going forwards you’ll start to see much more seamless service and much more data being consumed which will then need to be ported on our fibre network.

“It’s going to be a very interesting three or four years as we see how these different technologies develop and overlap with each other as people start to roll these networks out.”

You can read the full transcript of this interview here.

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