The UK may be finally looking ahead to next-generation services, but the surging consumer demands for data are providing a headache for networks. The unprecedented leap in data usage during the past few years, as videos, social networking and emailing become as commonplace as making calls, has led to greater demands being asked of networks. Something has got to give.
In June, O2 said that if current growth continues, its network could run out of capacity by 2014. And that’s after the network factored any spectrum it would buy in the forthcoming 4G auction. Last year, Three said it ran the risk of running out of network capacity by the end of 2012, although CEO David Dyson said earlier this year it had enough capacity to cope until the next-generation spectrum auction.
So the UK could be faced with a looming capacity issue. As Mobile revealed last issue, Virgin Media is rolling out a small cell network to allow networks to offload capacity and in doing so has shelved its own ambitions to buy 4G frequency. It held two trials in Newcastle and Bristol, running a 4G service through small cells at the 2.6GHz frequency holding. Speeds were around three times as fast as 3G networks or Wi-Fi.
Speaking at a roundtable event last week, Kevin Baughan, director of wireless at Virgin Media Business, said discussions were ongoing with operators about potentially providing them with extra capacity. Small cells could be placed into lampposts, removing the need to build more intrusive masts. Baughan said: ‘We are having good discussions and are moving in the right direction.’ The company is still thrashing out the details of how this would be funded – Baughan said it could either be a model based on volumes or a charge for participating.
Keep it small
One network that appears open to using small cells is Three. ErolHepsaydir, director of radio solutions strategy at the operator, was present at the roundtable and welcomed Virgin’s move. He said: ‘It’s not a new concept. We have been doing small cells since the 2G GSM days. But with the introduction of mobile broadband, traffic increased so much that companies are starting to ask if there is another way to increase capacity of their networks.’
However, Hepsaydir did strike a note of caution that operators were not prepared to immediately jump into bed with Virgin Media. He said: ‘Small cells need to be cost effective in order to really take off. And I am not saying that small cells outdoors will solve the indoor coverage experience. That also needs to be looked at.’
Research agency Real Wireless carried out analysis of the trial and said small cells have the potential to deal with the bottleneck of mobile data. Its director of technology, Simon Saunders, said networks were faced with a problem as consumers expect they can do more with their phones. He said: ‘Mobile broadband is far in advance of what was considered acceptable speeds for 3G five years ago. But instead of thinking coverage has become more universal, people believe coverage is getting worse in terms of what they want to do with it.’
Virgin Media said its recent rolling out of Wi-Fi into the London Underground demonstrated just how big demand was for consumer data. While small cells could solve next-generation capacity issues, Baughan said it could also be used to offload 3G capacity for networks.
He said: ‘We didn’t know the level of demand [that we would get] and now on our busiest days we have 900,000 sessions. It’s apps that drive that world and they are things that operate in the background. Consumers are receiving updates and emails. It’s a sweeping change so you need to have that connectivity. Mobile is at the very start of a period of mass explosive growth. Once it begins, companies will come up with the most exciting phones and tablets – things we haven’t thought of yet.’