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Vodafone’s public 3G femtocells trial tackles rural not-spots

The Shetland village of Walls* has one thing in common with Britain’s many broadband and mobile not-spots: it’s a small place where the networks traditionally don’t reach.

Whether it’s building a mobile phone cell tower or bringing fixed-line connections, the 300-head population just isn’t big enough to warrant a commercial roll-out.

Fortunately, Walls is part of a rolling trial of Vodafone’s Open Femto technology, building on the Sure Signal femtocell technology many Vodafone users have adopted to get good signals in their home.

Vodafone’s public 3G femtocells trial tackles rural not-spots
MP Alistair Carmichael, Vodafone’s John McCracken, Doug Forrest and Ian Walterson enjoy their new signal

From Sure Signal to Open Femto

Open Femto takes the home hot-spots, which can handle just a few users over a domestic broadband connection, and scales them up for more users and longer range.

Walls is covered by four femtocells, small base stations which can each handle up to eight simultaneous phone calls, fed to Vodafone by a leased broadband landline.

Vodafone’s popular in Shetland for its reliable 2G voice coverage, but 3G coverage is limited to the main towns and locations such as Sumburgh airport. Walls, on the far west of Shetland, doesn’t even have 2G .

Three of the femtocells cover around 100 people in the central village directly, with key locations at the Walls Public Hall, and the primary school. The wider community can enjoy 3G when they’re in the area – the cells reach about 500 metres.

Vodafone’s public 3G femtocells trial tackles rural not-spots
Vodafone’s Open Femto cell (click to zoom)

Waas was one of the lucky winners from 170 communities who have applied to join Vodafone’s Open Femto trial, with community council members Doug Forrest and Ian Walterson key to winning the bid.

A delighted Doug said: “Visitors to Waas Public Hall who needed to use the phone used to have to go through to the kitchen to use the one public phone.

“On the day it went live I went through the building with my phone giving a running commentary to my wife to check it was working.”

The fourth cell covers Shetland Mussels, Walls’s major employer, enabling owner Michael Tait to keep in touch with his staff around the site, and to field calls from customers like Belgos restaurants, or Billingsgate fish market in London, while he’s on the dock.

“You did lose business if you could not be on the phone, so it’s very important. For instance, if you have food safety issues you need to be able to talk to people straight away,” Michael adds.

A major test of Vodafone’s Open Femto technology will come in July, when 4,000 people descend on a field opposite the public hall for Walls Agricultural Show.

The bandwidth might get a little crowded, but the next version of Vodafone’s femtocell tech will be able to handle 16 simultaneous users. That’s plenty for a small community where few people are calling at the same time.

Like normal mobile base stations, the femtocells can keep phones in standby and handle background data requests, and hand-off traffic to an adjoining cell as the user moves (Walls doesn’t have an adjoining cell, but that’s not the case in all of Vodafone’s Open Femto trials).

What’s more important to Vodafone is the cost and simplicity of the system: the cells are small enough not to require planning permission (foil-hatted phonephobes beware); they’re low power (foil-hatted phonephobes at ease); can be bolted onto a wall quickly, and run off 13A mains power. 

It’s about half the cost of a standard mobile phone mast, although the community does need a good broadband connection to backhaul 3G voice and data to the main network. 

That’s not a problem in Shetland, where oodles of oil money have put 20Mbps broadband where mobile doesn’t reach, but in other areas no mobile usually means no broadband, either.

“Small businesses need to be able to keep in touch with their customers, suppliers and other people”Vodafone hopes that its recent acquisition of Cable & Wireless will extend its reach on the ground, but we learn that it’s hampered by a lack of access to BT’s ducts and overhead cables.

Yes, in the great British broadband debacle, mobile phone companies can’t use this semi-national infrastructure to extend rural coverage.

Another atypical feature of Walls among 3G notspots is its remote location: Vodafone’s first femtocell trial ran in a village just down the road from their HQ in Newbury, Berkshire, and others are closer to the built-up world than you’d imagine.

Other not-spot areas which have attracted Vodafone’s attention for the trial include villages with small business parks, where businesses feared being left behind.

“Small businesses need to be able to keep in touch with their customers, suppliers and other people,” a Vodafone spokesperson said. “They’re very important to us.”

One place the Open Femto project might not have a role is in extending 4G coverage: firstly because the 800MHz frequencies coming online for 4G this year will probably deliver quite good rural coverage; secondly because 4G is data-only, so voice calls still need 3G or 2G networks for voice calls.

In the areas where Open Femto is being rolled out, 3G voice coverage is the priority, while data is still seen as a luxury.

So when will Open Femto turn your 3G not-spot into a hotspot?

Vodafone already has a list of small communities around the UK, which have applied to be trial areas, and each one will present different challenges for it to work through. The goal is to ‘industrialise’ the femtocell rollout so it’s as cheap, quick and easy as possible to install a system.

There are no public plans for what Vodafone will do when it reaches that goal, but it has a publicly-stated commitment to get 3G to 98 per cent of the population, mostly to ensure voice coverage. 

It may be that small communities will be able to raise funds for an Open Femtocell install, or at least enough to tempt Vodafone into their area.

* Locally, Walls is spelled ‘Waas’, but legend has it that administrators and mapmakers from the mainland thought this was silly and went for a word they knew.

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