Why special events can be a special headache for mobile operators

Vodafone outlines how it covers festivals and special events, providing temporary coverage for hundreds of thousands of its customers every year.

By the year end, Vodafone UK will have supported 71 temporary events – festivals, fairs and sports meetings – using temporary mobile coverage solutions from its fleet of 24 Cells in Wheels (COWS). To do this the operator will have wheeled anywhere between 1 and 9 trailers onto event locations that are often rural and/or space constrained. Each site needs to be powered by diesel generators, and fixed up with high capacity microwave links to the nearest permanent site, and from there onwards to the local switch centre. These are, in essence, fully featured high power macro sites, with antennas including 64T64R massive MIMO, 4G and 5G.

Supporting such events costs millions of pounds – up to double digit millions the operator said in a briefing to journalists this week – but the return on that investment is more about avoiding the negative than generating the positive. In other words, attendees at events tend to complain if coverage and capacity are lacking, as do event owners. But the operator doesn’t see much of an upside for its investment.

Andrew Dona,  Vodafone UK’s chief network officer, said that Vodafone gave away free SIMs at Glastonbury, and that “some” users did remain on the network afterwards having had a positive experience, but most used the SIM for the event and then discontinued. Retail and merchanidise teams on site can try to sell battery packs and chargers, as well as other accessories.

Get it wrong, however, and the event can have a significant impact on the overall network stats and KPIs, as well as generate a constant flow of complaints. One event, Dona said, where configuration had gone a bit awry, resulted in an increase of 45,000 drops on the network – something that showed up enough to harm the national figures. Glastonbury users generated over 168,000 Gigabytes over the Vodafone network during the event. (For comparison Vodafone sees about 6 Petabytes – 6 million Gigabytes – of traffic a day on its entire network.)

So, operators are on a bit of hiding to nothing. They can’t afford not to provide coverage as the risk to the brand is too high if it becomes known that coverage at an event is useless. But they get precious little reward if they do choose to deploy a dedicated solution. The best they can hope for is to leverage the brand upside from signing official partnerships, by being able to offer their own customers better service and experience than their competitors. Dona added that there may also be some additional possibilities from features enabled by 5G SA, such as using AR or enhanced experiences to making concerts and other events more accessible to those with disabilities.

Nor is the business of covering festivals easy for operators. It takes more than driving a trailer into a park, sticking up the tower and turning on the power. Mobile operators installing sites on festival grounds are often dealing with less than ideal logistics, often siting their temporary towers where they are told to, rather than choosing the ideal space. And they also have to deal with fluctuating demand, with tens of thousands of festival goers moving around a venue at different times of the day. That requires an element of dynamic optimisation, such as antenna head tilting.

Dona said that teams carry out detailed radio planning prior to the event, assessing coverage and capacity demands, interference etc. That includes not interfering with permanent sites that might surround a venue, such as a city centre park.

Nor are these solutions particularly green. They rely on diesel generators churning away constantly for the duration. Dona said that the operator is always looking at site designs that might limit that requirement.

Sites also need to be configured to provide good uplink capacity, with uplink traffic at events accounting for double the share of traffic compared to permanenet sites. At the moment, Vodafone is using truck-based solutions from its main vendors Ericsson and Nokia for its 24 CoWS, rather than use the special events as an opportunity to use Open RAN or rival vendor solutions.

Perhaps these factors – expense, difficulty, little upside, brand risk – explain why Dona thinks that neutral host models may be an answer. A neutral host model sees the event owner, a lead operator, or a third party provider, provide the core infrastructure, and then other operators take control of their own radio resources on that infrastructure.

This model can reduce the site logistics and deployment requirements as it doesn’t require each operator to deploy site solutions. They can also mean that customers of all operators at an event will get good experience, rather than just customers of the partner operator. But neutral host models also require operators to co-operate on commercial terms, and agree to a multi operator core architecture if that is what is being provided.

But although Dona thinks that this is where events coverage may end up, he concedes that there is little demand for it so far from event operators. Asked if any of the major festivals had asked for a solution that enabled customers of all the operators to connect, he said no they hadn’t.

Some operators might not like the idea of neutral host as it makes it harder for them to differentiate their coverage over their competitors. But Dona takes the view that when it comes to superior coverage, “you win some and you lose some” and it is better for all operators to have a more even coverage presence, rather than be better at some events and concede at others.

“I think we’ve got to that stage in the UK where I need to be present and then I differentiate with other things… I’ve got 5G Standalone and others don’t, for example. ”

See how Vodafone describes its work providing coverage at special events: