The head of Vodafone UK’s network expressed eagerness for the industry to consider collaborating on connecting major outdoor events through a neutral host network rather than always competing on individual coverage alone, as the operator detailed its efforts across 71 venues in recent months.

During a briefing at Vodafone Group’s London headquarters this week, UK chief network officer Andrea Dona outlined the huge effort the operator put into ensuring reliable and fast mobile access at the events.

Vodafone invested in temporary masts at major music events including Latitude Festival, BST Hyde Park, Boardmasters and Creamfields North, along with signing a major deal with the biggest such gathering, Glastonbury Festival, to be the official connectivity partner, taking over from EE in a multi-year deal.

Dona said the additional network capacity was an “almost double digit millions” investment which required careful analysis from a financial and operational perspective.

So far in 2023, the operator doubled the number of temporary sites at major events compared with 2022, with 149 individual installations at venues across the UK.

It employed 24 Cell on Wheels at events and Dona is clearly delighted with the results of its investment, claiming it to be the only operator not to have a network failure during Glastonbury Festival.

Vodafone users at the event consumed almost 169 terabytes of data over the weekend, while 5G data usage at special events is rapidly increasing, up 80 per cent over 2022.

Neutral host
But Dona believes there is a case for the UK operator industry to work more closely together on ensuring tens of thousands of people gathered in a temporary, often rural, location for a few days can get guaranteed quality coverage.

Smiling Vodafone UK chief network officer Andrea Dona leans on a banister in a company officeDona (pictured, left) explained a neutral host approach involves a single company investing in infrastructure including towers, sites and fibre networks, and then leasing it all to multiple operators on a shared-tenant basis.

“I’ve always been a firm believer in neutral host because I think at this stage of our industry maturity we need to start differentiating on other things other than I have connectivity and you don’t. We need to get to a point where we all have it.”

Dona suggests each operator could be responsible for optimising their own network experience and providing value-added services at events on top of pure connectivity. “It would be easier and cheaper for everyone.”

The Vodafone UK networks chief also argues the network project could be owned by the actual event organiser, in the same way they offer fundamental services including catering and sanitation.

Dona notes a huge increase in cashless transactions at festivals in recent years means onsite retailers rely on mobile network connectivity from all operators to maximise return on their investment with the organisers.

Analyst reaction
Analysts are encouraged by the potential of a neutral host strategy, but argue it could be challenging to implement.

“On the one hand, it would avoid the need for multiple temporary installations, saving the industry significant investment and ensuring that customers of all networks get a reliable service, not just those using the host provider,” Kester Mann, director of Consumer and Connectivity at CCS Insight, told Mobile World Live.

However, he warned operators “have a dubious track record when attempting to collaborate and often prefer to find ways to differentiate from each other”.

PP Foresight founder Paolo Pescatore focused on the benefits of taking a neutral-host approach: “For every telco, transporting and installing their own infrastructure is not a long term viable solution, as people’s insatiable appetite for data continues to proliferate.”

“It is a partial solution to the wider issue of providing ubiquitous connectivity, where the industry along with event owners should be collaborating more to find a better outcome in a more cost effective way.”

“Solutions such as a neutral host approach should be strongly considered to ensure that all users across all networks get a signal. Robust and reliable connectivity is still one of the most sought-after features among users which helps drive customer retention.”

Regardless of whether the UK’s operators will join forces in the future, it’s clear that all the country’s players see connectivity at major events as a growing area of focus.

The country’s eventual allocation of very high frequency mmWave spectrum will be well suited to deployment in stadium venues where traffic volumes are huge across a limited and clearly defined coverage area.

But, as Dona points out, mmWave spectrum may not be the answer to the festival challenge due to an inability to travel long distances. “In stadiums it could be perfect, but expensive for Glastonbury.”