Recent weeks have seen UK operators up the ante in their network coverage battles, with music festivals across the country playing host to a raft of temporary mobile sites designed to support the colossal amount of data consumed when tens of thousands of users descend on an outdoor venue for a few days of songs, sunshine and social media.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour of Wireless Festival in London’s Finsbury Park. The annual rap and hip-hop music event has 3 UK as a headline sponsor and attracts a young adult crowd (at least twenty years younger than I am).

The operator was keen to showcase the performance of its network at a venue crammed with 50,000 urbanites, with a temporary mast supporting 4G and 5G network technology. Managed by facilities company Mitie Group, 3’s site (pictured, left) contained kit from network partner Ericsson as well as new antennas from CommScope Solutions (purchased specifically for boosting coverage in large crowds).

To judge from my speed-tests, 3’s investment paid off: with the venue nearly full at 16:30, 4G was delivering downlink rates of 53Mb/s and 23Mb/s up, while the 5G network was boasting 337Mb/s down and 49Mb/s up.

This performance was well ahead of the targets 3’s network team shared with media and analysts earlier in the day. Initial expectations from the engineers were of 2Mb/s 4G downlink during the busiest times of the event, an average of 4MB/s to 6Mb/s outside peak hours and a goal of “north of 50Mb/s” downlink on 5G.

Iain Milligan, 3 UK’s chief network officer, noted demand for 5G, in particular, is booming, with a big rise in usage compared with the operator’s sponsorship of the 2022 Wireless Festival.

“We’re seeing treble the volume of [5G] data being used from last year,” he remarked. That rise comes as the operator expects around 60 per cent of its users onsite this year to be using the network, compared with around 45 per cent in 2022.

Meanwhile 3 UK’s larger rival and potential future partner Vodafone UK cranked the volume up to ten earlier this year with a huge sponsorship deal as official connectivity partner at the behemoth Glastonbury Festival.

Vodafone erected nine temporary masts around Glastonbury Festival’s site to support the 200,000 attending.

It claims 169 terabytes of data was consumed, the most Vodafone data ever used at Glastonbury Festival and an incredible 99 per cent more than 2022.

And over at the huge BST Hyde Park series of events, housing 60,000 attendees, Vodafone and Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) chose to erect temporary sites, with mobile network enthusiast David Wheatley tweeting the former provided user speeds of 320Mb/s on 5G.

Wheatly’s findings concur with my own experience earlier this month of struggling for any data connection on an EE network while attending a concert in the park.

Luring subscribers
Vodafone and 3 also used their respective status at Glastonbury Festival and Wireless Festival to give away SIMs on-site to attract potential new subscribers. It’s clear operators are regarding music festivals as a huge marketing opportunity.

“There’s been a bit of tit for tat in network rollout among the UK telcos and a war of my network is better than yours continues to wrangle on,” PP Foresight founder Paolo Pescatore noted.

“Beyond price, telcos have tried to differentiate their offerings through network quality. This battle is now fuelling the use of temporary masts, which provide much needed improvements to coverage, additional capacity and help to reduce congestion at these bandwidth-hungry large events”.

Of course, providing temporary coverage requires significant effort and is costly, but it’s an investment Pescatore believes operators will benefit from.

“Inevitably user satisfaction will outweigh the cost of deployment and in theory increase loyalty. We should expect to see more temporary solutions emerge to help support efforts.”

Just how effective sponsorship of these big music festivals is for the likes of 3 and Vodafone is difficult to quantify. And it doesn’t give the select operator exclusive site access (engineers from 3 told me the operator erected five temporary masts at Glastonbury Festival and EE stated it set up seven additional masts, while I spotted temporary masts from rivals Vodafone and VMO2 at Wireless Festival).

Photo: Will Wood

But sponsorship of these events does appear to give challenger players like 3 the opportunity to better compete with larger rivals.

“With its enviable holding of 100MHz of contiguous mid-band 5G spectrum, 3 has a golden opportunity to turn around longstanding negative perceptions of its network quality. Temporary deployments like the one at Finsbury Park align with its new positioning strategy to promote its network capabilities and broaden its target market,” Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight told Mobile World Live.

And 3 isn’t done yet for the year. After Wireless Festival, the operator’s partnership with music event organiser and owner of the event Live Nation continues with a sponsorship of Suffolk-based festival Latitude followed by Reading Festival in August.

Expect 3 and others to continue pumping in the investment at music events over the next few years. As Pescatore notes, “user perception and credibility is paramount, more so when a telco is a connectivity partner of an event.”

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.