Operator 3 UK outlined an urban 5G push centred on small cells, with its latest trial set to commence in a major city next month which the operator hopes will form the blueprint for an open RAN-based overhaul of municipal connectivity.

At an event last week, 3 network chief Iain Milligan explained it opted to trial open RAN as part of a plan to install a total of 51 small cells in the heart of the city of Glasgow and surrounding areas.

Phase one of the programme involves deploying 20 small cells over the course of 15 months, with the first site set to go live late next month.

3 UK chief network officer Iain Milligan speaks from a wooden podium with a screen behind showing his presentation

Milligan (pictured, left) explained 3 views small cells as a cost-effective means to bridge current connectivity gaps and address variable coverage when compared to deploying a full macro site, which he noted often poses difficulties in urban settings due to planning and other restrictions.

Small cells offer a faster deployment path than a full macro build, which he said could take around a year in total.

In this case, the small cell equipment is fitted to a CCTV pole in the city centre.

The operator opted to use its trial to test the feasibility of open RAN, a point Milligan said differentiated it from UK rivals which have largely focused efforts using the architecture on rural environments.

He argued the rural approach does not provide the information required regarding open RAN’s performance in high-traffic situations.

“We’re going all in and actually trying to solve [the] problem all at once”, he explained, referring to the potential to provide a “transformative experience” in terms of connectivity while establishing a model 3 could pitch to authorities in other UK cities.

A CCTV post in Glasgow featuring a 3 UK 5G small cell produced using an open RAN architecture

“What we’re doing is the first on-scale deployment in a dense urban location”, he continued, explaining 3 had chosen “one of the most densely-populated parts of the UK, all in one location…to really test out the experience, how it solves the problem” and enables a highly-targeted network rollout.

Milligan said the operator expects coverage within the small cell areas to increase by 61 per cent over its current capability, with a 35 per cent incremental average increase in data rates.

A previous small cell trial in the city of Leeds delivered a 15-times increase in 5G data rates in the area immediately surrounding the site, with a 25 per cent improvement in the wider locale.

Milligan said 3 is also exploring small cell trials in other urban areas including Nottingham and Sheffield, but added Glasgow is its first involving open RAN.

The operator’s work in the city involves partnerships with Boldyn Networks, Mavenir, Accenture, AWTG and PI Works to produce, situate and test the equipment.

“What open RAN allows you to do is have the technology capability to be diverse in what you do but also innovate”, Milligan explained, citing benefits in terms of employing software to implement upgrades and changes compared with more traditional network deployments, which might require entire sites to be altered.

3 UK partner representatives stand by a CCTV pole in Glasgow featuring an open RAN 5G small cell

Milligan emphasised interoperability as part of the broader appeal of open RAN: in Glasgow, the operator currently uses equipment from major vendors including Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei, but the executive noted the Mavenir-made small cell employs open software to maintain the same level of customer experience. 

The 3 network chief noted the importance of partnerships goes beyond technology, citing its close relationship with authorities in Glasgow as another key piece of the blueprint the operator hopes to develop.

He described a unique arrangement whereby the city formed a dedicated team to advance the telecoms project as part of a broader Digital Glasgow initiative.

Essentially the move cut bureaucracy to a minimum, providing 3 with a single point of contact rather than several officials, which Milligan said offered benefits in terms of accessing infrastructure to deploy the small cell.

“Having this relationship with the council to this extent where they’re trying to make it easy to get things done is very rare in what we experience”, he said, adding 3 would work to encourage other areas of the UK to adopt the same approach.

City councillor and chair of the Digital Glasgow initiative Paul Leinster said the Glasgow Telecoms Unit was a “first of its kind in Scotland”, providing a “single point of entry for industry to the council”.

“As a result, infrastructure planning and deployment is relatively more cost and time efficient,” Leinster said, explaining this “in effect lowers the cost of doing business” with the city.

Government goals
Milligan argued urban deployments of open RAN are needed to meet a UK government target for 35 per cent of all network traffic to be carried over open and interoperable architectures by 2030.

The move to small cells is a good opportunity to use open RAN, effectively testing the waters in a novel environment before committing to a fuller rollout.

Of course, 3 is embroiled in the complicated process of trying to secure clearance for a tie-up with Vodafone UK, which itself is pushing open RAN, so there may be an unspoken theme to Milligan’s bullishness on the approach.

The executive concentrated on the coverage benefits of small cells compared with macro equipment, while highlighting the vendor diversity and innovation gains delivered by open RAN.

Small cells offer an opportunity to address service quality and coverage problems: Milligan noted users may have a strong data signal in one spot but lose this when they move through the city, hampering attempts to spur the digital economy.

It is putting its full range of 5G spectrum to use to address congestion issues.

The 3 executive does not foresee any security concerns arising from open RAN rollouts, telling Mobile World Live hardware and software will continue to be subject to the same tests operators must conduct for current equipment.

Of course, the implication is these are the same trials Huawei equipment had to pass: Milligan believes a decision to ban the Chinese vendor’s products was purely political, but ultimately the switch to open RAN by 3 and other operators may make such debate moot since it signals the end of reliance on a single vendor.