Three UK is seeking to tackle urban network congestion in Glasgow by deploying over 50 small cells throughout the city
The project, which will take 15 months to implement, will see 51 small cells deployed around the city of Glasgow to cope with the huge rise in consumer data consumption since the launch of its 5G services in 2019.
According to Three, the average Three customer uses 30GB of data per month, which is 2.2x more data than the average UK user.
“These are huge levels of consumption,” said Iain Milligan, Three’s Chief Networks Officer, explaining the necessity for additional capacity in urban centres to journalists at a press conference in Glasgow.
The first phase of Three’s new project to meet this rising demand will see 20 small cells deployed, the first of which was unveiled in the city centre yesterday.
For a major city, Glasgow is notable for its sporadic phone signal, which the journalists attending the project launch experienced first-hand. Milligan explained that in some parts of the city 5G coverage was excellent, while in others it was non-existent. Small cells, he explained, are a quick and cheap solution to this problem, costing around 1/9th of a macro site – which cost around £150,000 if being built from scratch.
These small cells are not only cheaper than their macro counterparts, but also far quicker to deploy; a traditional mast might take a year to fully deploy, while a small cell can be set up in just a matter of weeks.
Mavenir is providing equipment and software for the project, while site acquirement and deployment being carried out by Boldyn Networks. P.I Works will provide automation solutions, and Accenture will carry out performance measurements before and after.
Three predicts a 61% increase in coverage in areas where small cells are deployed as part of the trial, and an incremental average increase in speed of 35%. If the project is this successful, there are plans to roll out this infrastructure to other cities throughout the country. For this to happen effectively, there has to be the right balance of high customer demand and local authority engagement, as has been the case with Glasgow City Council.
“Without a fast, stable and secure connection to the internet, our citizens cannot be part of the limitless opportunities that are offered to them in the modern world,” said Glasgow City Councillor Paul Leinster, adding that the Council aims to to wipe out the digital divide within the city and to ensure that everyone’s access to the city’s economy should not be hampered by a lack of connectivity.
But while Three’s dealings with Glasgow have been positive, Milligan noted that the same reception cannot be expected from all local councils. As such, if the trial in Glasgow proves a success, Three aims to package up the process into a sort of “rinse and repeat” strategy around the country.
Beyond improving urban connectivity, this small cell trial is also interesting for another reason: its Open RAN architecture.
The UK government has set a target for the UK’s mobile networks to carry 35% of the UK’s network traffic over open RAN by 2030. Currently, Three UK have 0% Open RAN traffic, with this trial representing their first significant move in this technology’s direction.
Open RAN equipment is built to specifications that promote the interoperability, allowing mobile operators to theoretically cherry pick individual providers for each component within the RAN. This, Open RAN proponents argue, should allow for greater performance, customisation, and a reduction of reliance on the trio of major vendors: Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei. (Although it is worth noting here that, in the case of Three’s small cell trial, there is still only one RAN vendor involved: Mavenir.)
The UK government is particularly fond of Open RAN because of the plug-and-play nature of Open RAN architecture, which they say should allow for greater security of the UK’s networks.
For Three, Open RAN remains an exciting prospect but not a necessity.
“We support the ambition for it [the government’s 35% Open RAN goal], its just that within the financial constraints that we have, based on what revenue we have and flexibility, it’s not a priority for us at all,” explained Milligan.
“But we have stated, regarding the government commitment, that we will do what we can within our means, but that’s as much as we can do.”
If other operators share the same sentiment, hitting the target looks unlikely.
Finally, pressed on the matter of the prospective merger with Vodafone and what this would mean for the companies’ Open RAN ambitions, Milligan stressed that it was too soon too tell.
“We’re still in basic planning mode”, he said.
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