Perhaps its not entirely co-incidence that the Chalke Valley in southern England is not only a very beautiful area but also one of the largest populated mobile not-spots in the country. Since none of the four mobile networks provide service, the locals have setup a Community Interest Company to build and operate their own small cell network to bring both universal mobile service and fixed wireless broadband for all.
The Chalke Valley
The valley can be found about 100 miles south west of London and is part of Cranborne Chase designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As you’d expect, this makes it very difficult to gain planning permission for very large cell towers. The countryside of rolling hills constrains signal propagation. This is not a poor area of the country and hosts many thriving businesses including tourism and a popular annual festival. There are some very scenic and historic buildings, such as this parish church.
One of the few downsides of the area is the almost total blackout of mobile network service from all four national providers. You might be lucky at times, especially if you climb to the top of a nearby hill, but in general life has to be lived without the ubiquitous smartphones that the rest of us take for granted. Fixed broadband service is also very limited, with the long length of phone lines constraining speeds to a few Mbps at best. A few homes on the edges have the option of a fixed wireless broadband from an independent provider, using 5GHz unlicenced kit.
A community solution supported by their local MP
Several residents have come together to build and operate their own small cell mobile network, each bringing their own practical, technical and business competencies to bear.
I attended a launch meeting of the company at the village hall. Turnout was good, and interest was high. You could sense the frustration felt that they had been left out of participating from the rich Internet services which almost everybody else has. There was a lot of enthusiasm to proceed and participate in resolving the issue at long last.
Local Member of Parliament John Glen attended and showed his support. Having recently been promoted to Treasury Minister, he is well connected within the corridors of power. He told me he saw his role to be as facilitator and communicator within Westminster to support the project. He is keen not only to see this initiative succeed, but would champion it with a view to replicating it elsewhere in the country. He particularly liked the fact that this was combined solution for both mobile and broadband.
You can understand why locals are very unhappy about the situation and want something done. When dealing with other businesses, many these days simply can’t cope with the fact that you don’t have a mobile that works all the time.
David explained that he can use Internet Banking on his computer at home. But when logging in, a text message is sent with a login code. He needs to run up the hill and get back down again to enter it before it times out. That’s certainly one way to keep fit, but not ideal on a dark and wet evening.
A Bed&Breakfast owner spoke about the day some guests arrived, loved the rooms but as soon as they spotted there was no mobile coverage just packed their bags and left.
Ian had problems with Sky TV and phone service when first moving in. Without a mobile, he couldn’t be contacted and had to ring them from work. It just made the logistics of scheduling appointments and reporting problems much more difficult.
The Mobile Infrastructure Project should have fixed this
A government initiative launched in 2011 should have resolved this years ago. A government budget of £150 million ($200 million) was set aside to fund towers in blackspots like this, to be shared by all networks. The ambition was to build 575 new masts which would cover up to 60,000 premises. In the end, only 75 were built nationally at a cost of £35 million serving 7,199 premises = almost £5,000 per premise. Of the six or so allocated for the Chalke Valley, none went into service.
The impact report highlights the main benefits of connectivity to the community, including economic growth, public safety and internet connectivity.
Founding a Community Interest Company
James Andrew (on the right below) has formed CH4ALKE Mobile Ltd for the purpose of building and operating a mobile network within the valley, for the benefit of residents and visitors. It’s a Community Interest Company - a special type of limited company which exists to benefit the community rather than private shareholders. The company structure and mission is very similar to the B4RN community project (Broadband for the Rural North), but provides full mobile service rather than just Internet broadband.
The company will have investors and shareholders, but shares can also be awarded to those who contribute in other ways. Farmers might dig trenches to lay fibre cables. Residents might host sites and provide power for transmitters. There are generous tax incentives of up to 50% for investors. Shares can be bought and sold through the company with some constraints.
The intention is to operate with a small surplus which would fund ongoing maintenance including periodic equipment updates and improvements.
The total project cost to serve around 1,200 premises is estimated at £1.5 million and would be funded by a mix of valley residents and various local and government grants. The residents would be expected to fund about 10%, so £150K. DCMS (UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) is expected to contribute around 75%, topped up by 20% from the Local Enterprise Partnership. Providing broadband/mobile for everybody is a high priority for the UK government today. Another government initiative called Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) offers grants of £300 to £500 per home which would fund the fixed wireless broadband receivers.
Mobile service for end users would not attract any premium charges. Anyone, including visitors, would have seamless access to all four national networks at their normal rates. Residents wanting a high speed fixed broadband service would have an antenna and modem installed, for which they would pay around £30/month for broadband. It’s this latter income that would provide the bulk of operating funds.
The technical solution
The technology for the system is provided by Telet Research, a company founded by James Body (ex CTO of Truphone, pictured left above). Key components are:
- Telet’s Cloud based core network and management system
- At least 40 Accelleran E1000 4G outdoor small cells with embedded EPC
- Huawei residential rooftop 4G broadband transceivers with broadband routers
One of the unusual aspects of this project was that the regulator Ofcom is expected to give permission for CH4LKE mobile to use pretty much the entire 800MHz spectrum that would otherwise be unused. This is on a secondary licence basis for areas where the spectrum is currently unused. In the future, should any of the major networks install their own equipment then that part of the spectrum would become out-of-bounds.
Each small cell will light up a single 20MHz FDD channel to provide up to 100Mbps bi-drectional service. Different small cells may be assigned different frequencies to reduce interference from each other and more especially to/from the external networks. The low power of these small cells make it very unlikely that they would interfere with the major networks.
Using a single shared spectrum avoids the need to quadruplicate all the radio equipment, reducing costs substantially. Smartphones from any other network will work seamlessly without the need to swap SIM cards or enter passwords.
I suspect that a few residents might have to upgrade (or buy) a reasonably modern smartphone that is 4G compatible and supports VoLTE and the 800MHz band. There won’t be any requirement to swap SIM cards or even take out a subscription with CH4LKE to use the mobile service. It’s purely 4G only - 2G or 3G service is not anticipated although NB-IoT (4G narrowband Internet of Things) may be added later.
Telet have developed a Cloud based 4G core network which has voice and data roaming interconnection with all four major mobile networks. There will be a high capacity broadband Internet feed for fixed broadband traffic.
The outdoor small cells will be installed throughout the valley, connected by a mix of fibre and short range microwave links. They are relatively low power and so short range (say 2 miles or so).
Residents who sign up for broadband service will have a professionally installed roof mounted antenna/receiver connected by Ethernet cable to a broadband router. In addition to 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, there will be RJ45 ethernet sockets and even two wireline phone sockets. Non-premium rate phone calls will be free of charge because it’s simpler and easier to bundle that within a fixed monthly fee than meter each call with a more complex a billing system.
I have seen a technical report from one of the large UK networks who had examined the proposed scheme, and endorsed it as technical competent and commercially attractive. Frankly, increasing coverage in rural areas isn’t a highly profitable business, so if someone else can do this at no expense to the operator it should be beneficial to all parties. The operators may even win some a few new or higher spending subscribers that increase their revenues.
Bottom line and next steps
The bottom line is that compared to the Mobile Infrastructure Project cost of £5,000 per home, this 4G small cell approach using shared spectrum works out at £1,231 per home – about a quarter of the cost. There’s much less environmental impact than from large cell towers, an additional by-product of fixed broadband service and a commercial model that is sustainable. The competence and quality of the technical solution has been verified.
The pace of rollout will depend on how quickly funds and grants can be raised. There was optimism that this could be deployed fairly quickly. The compact size of the Accelleran small cells should mean that planning permission should be straightforward, and in many cases not required. Strong support from the local community will accelerate the task.
I look forward to revisiting the area again soon and being able to file my report online.