Three Trials Small Cells in Glasgow to Plug Connectivity Gaps

Earlier this month, I visited Glasgow to hear from Three about its trial of small cells using open radio access network (RAN) technology in the Scottish city.

Three and its partners have dubbed the project SCONDA, a tortuous acronym of “small cells ORAN in dense areas”. It’s one of several initiatives that received backing from the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology in September 2023. Promoting Open RAN is an important objective for the government, which is keen to encourage greater diversity of suppliers, having mandated the replacement of equipment from high-risk vendors in 2020. It has an ambition for Open RAN to represent 35% of all network traffic in the UK by 2030.

As part of the 15-month SCONDA project, Three will deploy 51 permanent 5G small cells in Glasgow city centre. The initial 20 — representing the first stage — are being supplied by Mavenir. The choice is significant as it represents an alternative to heavyweight providers like Nokia and Ericsson. The US company is part of a new wave of specialist infrastructure companies hoping to use Open RAN to gain share in a market otherwise dominated by a very small number of players.

Other partners in SCONDA are Boldyn, for site acquisition and fibre connectivity; PI Works for its automation platform; Accenture for performance management, as well as the universities of Surrey and Glasgow and the Scotland 5G Centre.

At an event for the media held at Glasgow City Chambers, Three’s chief network officer, Iain Milligan, explained that use of Open RAN could help Three overcome some of the complexities of its radio network deployment in Glasgow, where it manages infrastructure from four different suppliers — Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung and Huawei — just in the city centre.

He said that new interfaces allow a network operator to combine different companies’ products at the same mobile site. This avoids potential lock-in to a single supplier and should stir competition and innovation. However, Mavenir’s role as the supplier of both radio hardware and supporting software led to some debate as to whether the project represents a true Open RAN deployment.

Mr Milligan confirmed that small cells represent the extent of Three’s Open RAN ambitions, and that it has no plans to use the technology at its macro sites. This contrasts with its potential partner Vodafone, which has earmarked 2,500 sites in rural parts of Wales and south-west England as part of a much broader deployment.

This shouldn’t detract from the aims of SCONDA, which Three says is the first test in the UK using Open RAN in a densely populated urban environment with multiple suppliers. Mr Milligan believes this scenario is riskier and more challenging than other deployments in rural locations.

He also explained the advantages of using small cells. For example, as their antennas are less than 50 centimetres long (compared with up to two metres for a traditional mast), they can be easily attached to street furniture such as lampposts, CCTV camera poles and bus stops.

This enables more-targeted deployments focused on congestion hot spots. Three concedes that like other operators, the performance of its 5G network in cities can vary drastically. In one place, it could be lightning-fast, but around the corner, it could be almost non-existent. This represents a major frustration for customers.

Another advantage is cost: Mr Milligan said that the cost of a small cell is only about a ninth that of a macro cell, which can cost about £150,000. Small cells can be deployed within a few weeks, rather than up to a year for a macro site if it faces planning difficulties. Lastly, small cells are usually discreet and less disruptive to roll out.

Three aims to switch on its first site as part of the trial in late March 2024. The site’s equipment, pictured below, is on a pole on a busy corner close to the heart of the city.

The first small cell deployment as part of the SCONDA programme: Mavenir radios mounted on a pole in Glasgow.
Source: CCS Insight

Three expects all 51 sites to be operational by the end of the summer. The operator and its partners will monitor and assesses performance. Mr Milligan predicted a 61% increase in mobile coverage in small cell areas and an average speed boost of 35%. In Three’s previous small-cell trial in Leeds, it recorded speeds 15 times higher than in the surrounding area.

Mr Milligan also highlighted the benefit of offloading capacity from nearby sites, which will ease congestion in other areas of the city. If the trial proves successful, Three says it could form a blueprint for roll-out in other UK cities, and has already held talks with councils in Birmingham, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Almost all the small-cell deployments in the SCONDA project will be outdoors. However, most cellular traffic is delivered inside buildings. When I raised this with Mr Milligan, he mentioned the greater complexity of attaching infrastructure to public buildings and talked about a “neutral host” model in which a single provider offers access to other parties.

Addressing Three’s wider 5G roll-out plans, Mr Milligan said that the operator has stopped expanding its network geographically because of cost; it currently has just over 60% population coverage, a similar level to a year ago.

It has instead shifted its focus to the UK’s shared rural network, compliance with the government’s mandate on high-risk vendors, and focusing on densification efforts such as the Glasgow small-cell trial. As a part of this, it plans to add another 500 5G sites in 2024, taking its total to 6,000.

Three isn’t the only UK operator trialling small cells. Virgin Media O2 is also involved in a Department of Science, Innovation and Technology scheme, called Reach, in partnership with the University of York, Viavi Solutions and Blackpool Council, to address the challenges of high volumes of network traffic from tourists.

Virgin Media O2 is installing small-cell technology on poles alongside its existing fibre network cabinets, a move that aims to reduce its reliance on Openreach for backhaul and to cut costs by using its own electricity. And in June 2023, EE said it has deployed more than 600 small cells on various pieces of street furniture, including some of BT’s iconic red telephone boxes.

SCONDA and other schemes are good examples of the telecom industry working with both government and third parties to solve common connectivity problems, and I’ll be monitoring their progress with interest.