The First 5G-Enabled Festival

5G a Star Performer at Glastonbury 2019

I’ve always been intrigued by how network operators manage major events given that the smartphone is now an indispensable item for any festival-goer. Being connected is pretty much essential for attendees hoping to share their experiences on social media, find friends on site or catch up on events.

The capacity needed to support events of this magnitude almost always exceeds whatever infrastructure is already in place, making the logistics a huge challenge, particularly when the festival’s in a field in rural Somerset. But not having good coverage can be hugely frustrating for attendees and even influence their future choice of mobile provider, which is why most network operators have teams specifically focussed on events and temporary sites.

This year, more than 200,000 people attended Glastonbury Festival, the world’s largest green field festival. That’s a temporary gathering bigger than the population of towns such as Oxford, Swindon or Newcastle upon Tyne.

Back in January, I guessed there would be a good chance that EE, which has been the official technology partner of the music festival for many years, might try to offer 5G at the event, so I dropped the operator a line to ask whether there would be an opportunity to get behind the scenes. As it happened, I guessed correctly, and EE kindly offered to help.

It transpired that EE wasn’t just going to have a small 5G deployment to showcase the new technology; it was going to try to deliver 5G coverage to a significant proportion of the festival over four sites, with multiple sectors, incorporating brand new temporary towers capable of supporting the latest 5G equipment from Huawei.

The adventure started at the end of May, when I made my first visit to the Glastonbury site just a few days after EE had officially launched its commercial 5G network. As you’ll see from the pictures and video below, work on the festival site had already started, but it was still early days for the infrastructure. Temporary roads, temporary fencing, and of course, a temporary mobile network.

Over the years, EE has worked hard to consistently improve its coverage at the festival. Rather than always relying on the same locations, it tries to optimize the position of its temporary sites based on previous lessons. This year it deployed part of the network in two completely new locations, adding to the overall complexity of the full network set-up.

On the day I arrived the trailers were in place, the towers were up and the riggers were busy mounting antennas and installing the microwave links that would connect the three temporary trailer sites with 5G to the anchor site in the heart of the festival site. In total, EE had six temporary sites at the event. The fixed connection to the anchor site had been upgraded to increase backhaul speeds from 4 Gbps to 10 Gbps. This proved to be an astute move — analysis after the festival showed that during this year’s event, 103.6 TB of mobile data were transmitted, which was almost double the total from 2017 and almost 1,000 times as much as in 2010.

I returned to Glastonbury one week before the festival began, at which point the network had been fully commissioned. EE was offering connectivity on 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G technologies, delivering what I believe was then the most extensive, highest-capacity 5G temporary network ever built.

I was hugely impressed with the depth of coverage across the whole site and it gave me a chance to test the 4G and 5G networks in an unloaded state, and compare them with the performance during the festival a week later.

Having conducted tests across the entire site using a variety of Qualcomm-powered 4G and 5G devices from HTC, LG and OnePlus, I was regularly achieving speeds in excess of 500 Mbps, and recorded a top speed of 860 Mbps during my visit. I also carried out comparative speed tests using 4G and was able to frequently record over 200 Mbps. This was extremely encouraging, given that the vast majority of festival attendees would be using 4G.

When I attended the festival a few days later with tens of thousands of other people, I was extremely sceptical I’d be able to reach anywhere close to the speeds I’d achieved when the network wasn’t loaded. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that during my first 5G speed test I immediately hit speeds of over 250 Mbps. On the second day, having toured the site and ventured into some of the sweet spots for network coverage, I hit a peak speed of 590 Mbps, with typical throughput being about 400 Mbps. It’s worth noting that at this time I was also still achieving speeds of over 100 Mbps on EE’s 4G LTE network.

EE stated that more than 3.7 million calls were made on its network during the course of the festival, underlining that it’s not just about mobile data at these large events, and making support for older 2G and 3G connections an important consideration. However, that necessity is diminishing, and the pace of technology change is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of calls made on the EE network at Glastonbury this year were on the 4G network using voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) technology. The operator cites this as one of the reasons why it had a much higher call success rate than previous years. In 2019, 82% of calls used VoLTE, which compared with 47% in 2017 and just 5% in 2016.

The real test came over the weekend, when the festival reached capacity and more than 200,000 people were in attendance. EE has about 30% market share in the UK, and had a disproportionate number of users at the festival. Indeed, Ericsson’s Expert Analytics platform recorded 127,000 users on the EE network. This probably reflects multiple phone usage among some attendees, but there were also about 4,500 people roaming from abroad onto EE’s service.

In order to test the network in the harshest possible conditions, I conducted some speed tests while standing in front of the main Pyramid Stage while some of the biggest acts performed to enormous audiences. As you can see from the pictures below, I recorded speeds of 190 Mbps and 250 Mbps during these tests.

So, what did I learn from this unique opportunity? Admittedly, there were very few 5G handsets at the event and I only came across a handful of other people using the 5G network, so I had a huge advantage over other people using EE’s service. However, that advantage only extended from my handset to the tower. After that, I was sharing the same backhaul resources as everyone else, so it was a real testament to the resilience of EE’s network that during the busiest times I was still able to reach speeds of more than 100 Mbps even when the 4G network was being stretched.

As I’ve written previously, the benefits of 5G go far beyond raw speed, and in the case of large gatherings, such as a music festival, capacity is arguably the biggest advantage (see A Promising Start for 5G). Put simply, a 5G highway offers many, many more lanes than a 4G one will ever be able to. Furthermore, by moving more people to a 5G network operators should be able to free resources for the remaining 4G users, although given the rocketing growth in data traffic, it’s likely this will do little more than keep current performance stable.

The public’s insatiable appetite for connectivity and access to mobile services makes 5G more important than ever before, particularly in highly competitive markets like the UK, where we’re now seeing the advent of unlimited data tariffs. I’m grateful to EE for making it possible to be present at the very beginning of this journey.

Video production: Will Wood