UK Operators Dial Up Coverage at Major Events

Providing reliable connectivity at major events has become an important battleground for mobile operators. Thanks to the power of social media, the reputation of a network can quickly rise or fall depending on how well the network performs, so it’s little surprise to see a surge in recent investment.

With the festival and major events season now in full swing, CCS Insight put the quality of mobile networks to the test at two big music events: Glastonbury Festival and Wireless Festival.

This year, Vodafone seized the prized role of official connectivity partner for Glastonbury from EE and threw everything at the event to ensure it delivered great network performance. This meant deploying nine temporary masts at the Worthy Farm venue, several featuring nine-beam special events antennas that use increased cell sectorization to enable a performance-defining capacity gain.

In plain terms, this means Vodafone could direct capacity to specific areas, for example, the iconic Pyramid Stage, increasing network capacity multiple times when compared with a standard beamwidth configuration.

Network resilience was also a major focus. The company divided its operation into three clusters to avoid a single point of failure; all masts had extensive battery backup; dedicated engineers were on hand with spare parts; and additional generators were on site to address any problems.

One of Vodafone’s temporary sites at Glastonbury. The large rectangular panel at the top of the mast is the nine-beam special events antenna for high-band 4G. The lower rectangular box is a three-beam antenna for low-band 4G and older technologies.

Vodafone touted a whopping 169TB of data carried over the course of the event, nearly double the volume of 2022, underlining how people now rely on their phones for much more than just calling or texting each other. Sharing experiences on social media, particularly video content, places a huge burden on network infrastructure and networks soon get found out if they under-resource an event.

In some cases, users want to livestream the action, especially at sports events like the British Grand Prix, which had more than 500,000 visitors across the three-day event and posed another capacity and coverage challenge to operators. We also note that in addition to market growth and evolving customer behaviour, the rise in data traffic is being driven by greater bandwidth being available.

Given the scale of Glastonbury, with more than 200,000 attendees over five days, rival networks also invested heavily in delivering capacity. Three, which only had five temporary masts at the event, performed unexpectedly well considering it had struggled in previous years, probably thanks to its spectrum advantage and renewed commitment to supporting events.

Having long been a communications partner at Glastonbury, EE understands the topography and capacity requirements of the venue, and it too provided a good experience with seven temporary sites and two permanent ones serving visitors, although it lagged Vodafone. In contrast, it was a poor showing from O2 whose customers suffered from a significantly inferior experience with the network often being unavailable.

With about 50,000 visitors, Wireless Festival is a smaller event and one that presents a different set of challenges given its location close to the centre of London. Here, network operator Three was the connectivity provider.

Three has long struggled with negative perceptions of its network quality but has made strong recent improvements, mainly by holding 140 MHz of mid-band 5G spectrum, including a 100 MHz contiguous block. So, the three-day festival was a golden opportunity for it to show off how far it’s come.

Three had a single temporary site at Finsbury Park, from where it beamed 4G and 5G signals over a 180-degree arc using network kit supplied by Ericsson. This was supported by antennas from CommScope, specifically designed for high-density locations. These allow high-density sectorization and frequency reuse, boosting the 4G capacity. Installation and management was taken care of by facilities company Mitie.

During a briefing for the media, chief network officer Iain Milligan explained that Three used its full breadth of spectrum at the event. This comprised the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1400 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz bands for 4G and the 3.4 GHz and 3.6 GHz bands for 5G. The 5G deployment was supported by three 32T/32R massive-MIMO radio antennas — massive-MIMO technology uses a large number of transmission and reception antennas to maximize capacity.

Three’s temporary mast at Wireless Festival. The three small square boxes at the top are 5G massive-MIMO antennas at 1400 MHz, the larger square boxes below are the CommScope solution (two 1800/2100 MHz six-beam antennas), and the longer rectangular boxes are 700 MHz, 800 MHz and 1400 MHz antennas.

Sharing its network stats with CCS Insight, Three said that the proportion of traffic over 5G at the festival leapt from 38% in 2022 to 62% this year. This is higher than it recorded at other recent large events including the British Grand Prix (51%), TRNSMT festival (49%) and Glastonbury (43%), probably because the Wireless event attracts a younger crowd.

According to our tests, Three’s investment appeared to pay off. It was by some way the best-performing network, offering speeds at or above 200 Mbps for most of the weekend. That’s pretty impressive considering the number of people crammed into a relatively small area.

But not everything was perfect: in a prime location right in front of the stage, with thousands jammed together, our connection dropped. Move slightly to the side, and we were quickly back up and running. It just goes to show how technically hard it can be to keep huge volumes of devices connected simultaneously.

One option to bolster capacity at future events is to deploy millimetre-wave spectrum. Earlier in 2023, Ofcom began consulting on how best to make the 26 GHz and 40 GHz bands available for 5G services in the UK. These higher frequencies are ideally suited to locations where traffic volumes will be significant, including not just temporary sites like festivals but also permanent venues such as stadiums, shopping centres, transport hubs and tourist hot spots. However, as well as allocating the airwaves, millimetre-wave spectrum also requires widespread device support.

A more viable near-term alternative could be to have a single neutral host provider. This would avoid the need for multiple temporary installations, saving the industry significant investment and ensuring that customers of all networks get reliable service, not just those using the host provider.

The effort operators are putting into providing coverage at major events highlights a new front in the battle to win over customers. With people’s thirst for data showing no signs of easing, offering a superior service at a festival or sports event could prove a major advantage in a market as competitive as the UK. This area is only set to intensify.

Check out this short video we shot at Wireless Festival for a closer look at Three’s temporary installation.

Videography by Will Wood.