Vodafone goes underground to build mobile network of future

13 December 2018   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

Mobile provider reveals they're installing equipment beneath streets to improve mobile coverage for urban customers.

The underground antennae improve 4G coverage for mobile users immediately.

Connections are fibre-connected and 5G-enabled to allow easy upgrades to 5G technology in the future.

Initial sites are at Vodafone offices in Newbury, while further smart antennae will be rolled out under their own manhole covers, along with those of utility providers across the UK.

vodafone mobile phone
Credit: Piotr Swat/Shutterstock.com

Improved signal for customers

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Vodafone's target locations for the new antennae are within high-traffic urban areas including busy roads and town centres.

They can provide fast internet and carry calls over 200 metres using comparatively little power.

There are no huge disruptions or road closures during installation, ensuring that businesses and citizens aren't inconvenienced by the rollout.

In addition, because they are hidden underground, they don't infringe on public spaces or alter the environment.

Two styles of manhole antennae have been developed, with one using existing cast iron manhole covers while the second is housed in a purpose-built unit that is sunk into the ground.

Vodafone have also started fitting small 4G antennae to traditional phone boxes to improve mobile capacity at street level.

These have been rolled out in Princes Street, Edinburgh in time for Hogmanay celebrations.

They are also useful for extending 4G to areas where installing traditional mobile masts might prove difficult such as remote locations and areas of outstanding beauty.

Vodafone preparing for 5G

While these new manhole antennae help to improve 4G services in busy areas, they're also simple to upgrade to 5G because they're fibre-connected.

This means they can form the basis of what Vodafone hopes will become smart cities, with connected infrastructure enabling intelligent road management systems.

Vodafone were one of the big winners at Ofcom's mobile airwaves auction earlier this year, winning 50 MHz of 3.4 GHz (5G) spectrum.

In October, they also launched a live trial of 5G traffic in Salford, becoming the first provider in the UK to carry full 5G on a commercial network.

They're not the only company upgrading their infrastructure in preparation for 5G, with EE recently highlighting the challenges they're facing during the process.

EE's parent company, BT, are currently choosing partners for their core network 5G equipment, having banned Huawei from bidding due to security concerns.

Vodafone improving customer experience

These latest antennae additions to the 4G network are another sign that Vodafone is improving the overall experience of their customers.

This is a far cry from their performance prior to 2017 when they were fined £4.6 million by Ofcom for various breaches relating to billing and complaint handling.

Since then, their customer complaint levels have drastically reduced, although they remain the second most-complained about pay-monthly provider in the most recent figures for Q2 2018.

The company has acknowledged their customer service is inadequate and have begun investing in UK call centres, staff training and improved computer systems to address the issue.

They have also benefitted from a revised prediction of the signal levels by Ofcom for their 4G services.

This means that the levels of coverage they offer across the country may have been misrepresented in official analyses in the past, and Ofcom are rectifying that in future reporting.

In the last available (unrevised) figures in the 2017 Connected Nations Report, Vodafone's 3G and 4G data coverage was at 96% for indoor locations and 77% for outdoor ones.

This puts them above the combined operator averages of 85% and 63% respectively.

A full review of Vodafone's mobile network can be found here.

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