EE has set itself the goal to expand geographic coverage throughout the UK. A key plank of that strategy is to install rural small cells to serve isolated communities. I visited three trial sites in Wales to understand how these systems have been installed and what impact they’ve made to the local population. Parallel Wireless who provided the equipment introduced me to local users and explained how the system worked.
Testing both different architectures and user profiles
Each of the three locations on west coast of Wales served a different user profile and each was designed to trial a different backhaul architecture. The common aspect was the integrated Parallel Wireless 3G+4G small cell in a secure cabinet. These were each installed in a single day, with a “cherry picker” used to fit the antenna to the side of a building. A single innocuous cylindrical antenna housing incorporates separate 3G and 4G directional antennas, typically with a 90 degree spread plus a GPS receiver for synchronisation. Some of the units only required mains power and used wireless links for backhaul. The others were directly connected to fibre backhaul. These are all live on EE’s network, making calls and sending data, seamlessly handing over to/from the macro network. All the usual services and features are available and it is fully compatible with 3G and 4G smartphones – even older models.
Where wireline backhaul isn’t available, it can be very efficient simply to relay the service from a nearby 4G macrocell. Line of sight transmission from the so-called “donor” macrocell using 4G uses higher modulation rates than a smartphone to achieve greater throughput from the same spectrum resource.
This is then “repackaged” to provide both 3G and 4G at the local sites. Using 4G for backhaul is less expensive that installing dedicated microwave links. Internal short range line-of-sight datalinks between local small cells use the 5GHz unlicensed band. Any site could be upgraded with wireline backhaul in the future if and when it becomes available and is cost effective to connect.
A welcoming community
The first notable aspect is that wherever we went, the local community were very pleased to have the service and couldn’t do enough to help the engineers install and operate it. They certainly didn’t view the system as an imposition; more of a release from the poverty of poor connectivity.
This is no accident. EE have deliberately selected communities that want to become involved rather than imposing a solution in locations with local opposition. Community champions have greatly assisted the projects with site selection, practical support on-site and communicating details to those who will benefit.
The forgotten village
Llanddeiniol is a small village tucked away in a valley just a few miles off the main road. Mobile phone calls used to involve a steep walk up to the top of the nearest hill. Wireline broadband over ADSL here is a far cry from the tens of megabits many have become used to in our towns and cities, with typical rates of 1 Mbps down and 0.1 Mbps up.
Jon Parker, who works from home, was very enthusiastic about the project. Not only did he provide the site for the small cell but he also dug out a 230 metre trench along the side of his field for the fibre backhaul and power cables connecting a receiver located on a telegraph pole. That has direct line of sight to the donor macrocell peeking out behind a hilltop far down the valley.
Quite apart from enabling him to work from home more effectively, he also felt this was one way to “give back” something to his local community. His neighbours include farmers and doctors, who all benefit from ubiquitous cellular service where before there was none.
The Holiday Home
While some like to enjoy being off-grid during their holidays and weekends away, life for many requires being constantly connected. Indeed, it can enable a more flexible lifestyle with more time spent away from the office. This has led to greater demands for good Internet and mobile coverage in holiday areas.
The very scenic and modern holiday village at Tresaith did have some 4G coverage from a distant macrocell, but most of the village was masked by a headland and there was no 3G service at all. A carefully positioned interlink site received the 4G signal and rebroadcast this as 3G throughout. It also relayed the signal to a second site installed on a holiday home further up the valley, which distributed 3G and 4G cellular service around it.
[View from the interlink site towards the donor macro, and of the village from the interlink site]
[Discretely hidden, the directional antenna is well positioned for village coverage while the rectangular receiver antenna has a good view of the donor macro]
The owner of the holiday park has been very pleased with the system and the reliability of coverage throughout. He no longer misses calls when away from his desk and can respond directly at any times. Once word gets out, I’d be surprised if bookings aren’t up for the year ahead.
The Industrial Airport
The old RAF base at Llanbedr has been acquired for civilian use. It aims to become a hotbed of aviation research and development, already hosting drone testing, and is seeking to become a launchpad for future space travel. As with many airfields, there is an estate with a range of offices and related industrial units for rent. Cellular service was barely available before but is clearly an essential item for today’s businesses.
[A single site at the main airside gate provides coverage to many buildings spread out across the industrial park, which is at the early stages of redevelopment]
The site had fibre broadband installed as part of recent infrastructure investment. Three small cells have been installed across the airfield, all with direct fibre backhaul and all providing both 3G and 4G service.
[Llanbedr Control Tower and office complex, served by a dedicated small cell opposite]
The deputy airfield manager was upbeat about the new service. It’s made his life an awful lot easier and clearly differentiates EE from other networks in the local area.
A cookie cutter approach
Although the end users and backhaul choices varied between these three sites, they all shared the same common equipment and installation format. A single cabinet on the ground fed by mains power with cabling to a single rooftop level antenna. Installation typically took a day.
These initial trial deployments have allowed EE to refine and streamline their standard deployment and configuration procedures. In these remote areas, there is little opportunity to interfere with or affect the existing macrocell coverage.
Site maintenance visits can be costly in these remote areas, so local technicians such as electricians or satellite TV installers have been co-opted for ad-hoc local support. This avoids the need to send specialists from far away. Remote diagnostics, robust and resilient equipment design together with thoughtful design of siting helps minimise ongoing maintenance issues.
Peak data rates have been deliberately limited to as low as 30Mbps at some sites to avoid hogging the full capacity of the donor cellsites but each site would otherwise achieve 100Mbps or more. Where few users share a local site this isn’t really noticeable.
It certainly beats measuring traffic speeds in kilobits per second….. or nothing at all.