Keeping Festivals Connected

Investment in Event-Specific Networks Keep Growing

As the festival season gets underway in the UK, the challenge of how to provide the best possible mobile coverage once again becomes a topic. Over the past few years, CCS Insight has taken a close interest in how technology is deployed at temporary locations, with a particular highlight being EE’s decision to deliver the first 5G festival in 2019 and the significant investments by Vodafone, Three and others to dial up coverage at major events in 2023.

These events are challenging for network operators as they demand immense planning and deployment of considerable resources that will only be needed for a few days. However, in a fully saturated market, delivering a poor experience at a high-profile event like Glastonbury Festival or the British Grand Prix, which both have several hundred thousand attendees, can tarnish an operator’s reputation and influence consumers when upgrading their subscription.

Expectations are always raised when a network operator is sponsoring an event, as is the case for Vodafone at Glastonbury and Three at the Isle of Wight, Latitude, Leeds, Reading and several other festivals. Decent network performance becomes an expectation for festival-goers and a bad experience can result in a flurry of negative social media posts and media coverage.

We believe that 2024 marks the biggest-ever investment in temporary network deployment by UK operators. Even to stand still from a performance perspective requires additional investment. But merely deploying the same resources from a previous year is no longer enough because of the ever-increasing data traffic generated by attendees, often with unlimited data packages.

These days people want to share even more content on social media networks, in addition to streaming video, making calls and more. Other considerations include more-modern devices producing higher-resolution photos and videos that create more data traffic, and messaging apps like WhatsApp allowing higher-quality photo and video sharing.

This is reflected in Vodafone’s estimate that its total data traffic for Glastonbury Festival will increase by 30% year-on-year, from 169 TB in 2023 to over 215 TB in 2024, which it claims is the equivalent of 69,000 hours of HD video streaming or uploading 61 million Instagram photo posts.

Interestingly, rival network EE recorded a data volume of 225 TB in 2023 (higher than Vodafone’s estimate for 2024) and 182 TB in 2022, up from 104 TB in 2019, which was almost double the total from 2017 and nearly 1,000 times as much as in 2010.

To put this into context, the 270,000 Taylor Swift fans using the EE network at Wembley during the three nights of her Eras Tour concerts used 16.2 TB of data.

Temporary masts deployed at Glastonbury Festival in 2024

Glastonbury has arguably become a reference event because of its high profile. Vodafone has already revealed that it will have an additional temporary site this year (the sites are affectionately known as COWs, short for Cell on Wheels) taking its total to 10 masts. It’s also deploying several small cells to provide additional coverage in specific hot spots.

EE, which sponsored Glastonbury until 2022, is deploying nine sites in 2024: two permanent ones from historic investment in the area and seven temporary sites to ensure it can continue to offer the strong performance of previous years. Like other operators, EE is deploying all its available spectrum and technologies to maximize its capacity.

Virgin Media O2 is deploying eight sites and Three will use all its 4G and 5G spectrum deployed on six sites at Glastonbury. Three will be hoping its sizeable 5G spectrum will help as a greater proportion of attendees now own 5G-capable phones.

However, despite the improved mobile network performance from all operators over the past few years, some businesses attending festivals and other large events have suffered from connectivity problems at peak times, which can be disastrous now the majority of transactions are conducted electronically. As a result, we’ve seen some businesses at past events turn to the Starlink satellite network to guarantee connectivity.

Starlink satellite service being used by a trader at a music festival in 2023

To address this, Vodafone has a small trial deployment of a 5G network slice for some businesses at Glastonbury, offering them dedicated network access thanks to 5G standalone technology. This is provided using a dedicated cellular-enabled router that traders can use to connect their point-of-sale devices over Wi-Fi. Interestingly, Vodafone deployed this technology solution a year ago to help news network ITN broadcast the King’s coronation. This approach was also used by US carrier T-Mobile at the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November 2023, and we expect it to become a more common offering for business users in the coming years.

Network slicing is one of the benefits of moving from the initial non-standalone 5G network design to a 5G standalone network that uses a 5G core. This is a topic CCS Insight has been covering with interest and more information can be found in 5G Standalone Benefits and Progress: A Primer. We expect further 5G standalone launches in the UK in the coming months.

As markets mature and the differentiation between mobile network operators narrows, the ability to provide comprehensive network coverage and capacity is now something consumers expect. Major festivals, sporting events and other temporary gatherings are now a part of all network operators’ annual planning processes, and we expect them to continue investing in this area. They also provide the opportunity to deploy new technology, offering a unique test bed to see how the latest network infrastructure developments can be exploited.

Ahead of Glastonbury Festival, I had a chance to see Vodafone’s temporary network build and spoke to Vodafone’s Ker Anderson, head of radio and network performance, about the deployment for the event. Watch the interview below.