Vodafone UK used an event at its Newbury headquarters to trumpet its network evolution plans, including a Massive MIMO first and a new solution to boost rural and hotspot coverage.
The UK’s third largest operator (with a 25 per cent market share, according to GSMA Intelligence) said it is leading the European way with its deployment of 64 element Massive MIMO technology from Huawei, including an installation covering its UK base (and, incidentally, some surrounding roads). Using 20MHz of 2600MHz (TDD) spectrum, the operator talked-up the benefits enabled by beamforming – the ability to direct signals specifically at users.
“It’s able to re-use the spectrum over and over again. So instead of getting 140Mb/s from your 20MHz, what we’ve seen is around 500Mb/s to 600Mb/s aggregated throughput per sector. So the spectrum efficiency goes up by four to five times,” said Kye Prigg, head of mobile networks at Vodafone UK.
With improved signal receive path performance, Vodafone also said Massive MIMO can improve network coverage, which will be especially important as operators move to rollout networks using higher spectrum bands: “2600MHz Massive MIMO has the same propagation as 1800MHz to 2100MHz [networks]. So you are able to extract much more coverage from the higher spectrum bands,” Prigg continued.
Given UK operators have largely built their networks around the 2100MHz spectrum used for 3G (and, in some cases, refarmed for 4G), this is an important characteristic.
Prigg said rather than being a technical trial, its Massive MIMO deployment is “live, it’s commercial in our network”. Deployment is likely to centre on “hotspots, big cities, special events”, he said, adding: “We are going to put it where it makes sense to put it.”
The technology is, he said, “very, very expensive,” and comes with challenges around backhaul – particularly availability of fibre.
Vodafone UK already deployed two 64 element antennas, with another seven being installed imminently and plans for “another 20 or so” in future.
Another talking point was what Vodafone UK called “Mini Macro”, a system which sees the various components of a base station – including transmission, power and radio equipment – located in a single housing. It is pre-configured to make installation easy, with only the need to concrete in place and connect fibre and power.
Prigg said the offering could: “revolutionise the way we move forward with rural coverage and hotspot coverage”.
“It’s about 50 per cent cheaper than a normal deployment, but it brings the same capacity.”
Due to its reduced footprint, Mini Macro is less likely to fall foul of planning restraints – which Vodafone said is an issue in rural areas, even when there is a need for improved connectivity.
Vodafone already has two Mini Macro sites live in the UK.
The operator was not solely focused on its future technology plans, with emphasis placed on the evolution of its existing network including the deployment of advanced 4G technology.
It said its Beacon modernisation project, which sees active infrastructure sharing with O2 UK, is now around 79 per cent complete, with the work expected to be substantially concluded by the end of the year.
With Vodafone’s UK network having been perceived as something of a weak spot in the not too distant past, Prigg cited metrics moving in the right direction in terms of dropped calls, call set-up, and the amount of data carried by its 4G infrastructure.
Vodafone UK also has 250 sites deployed with three carrier aggregation (across 800MHz, 2100MHz and 2600MHz spectrum), and 1,000 sites with 256QAM modulation.
The company was especially proud of its 180 sites with 4×4 MIMO: “We know that our competitors are shouting about it, but they haven’t really deployed very much of it,” Prigg said.