For Vodafone, the bell tolls 4G

vodafone church 4g

UK operator Vodafone is looking to the heavens for a solution to rural mobile coverage.

It revealed on Thursday that it has partnered with the Church of England and coverage solutions specialist Net CS to deploy Open RAN 4G signal boosters in 11 church bell towers across the country. Each one has a range of up to 500 metres, enough to cover the surrounding area.

The Blessed Virgin Mary in Brompton Regis, Somerset, and St Michael’s and All Angels in Ewyas Harold, Herefordshire have gone live already. The remaining nine are due to come online over the coming months.

Mobile operators sometimes struggle to secure planning permission for new sites in some of the more picturesque, rural parts of the country, often because the local community considers them a blot on the landscape – while simultaneously complaining that mobile coverage is rubbish.

So when it comes to the matter of installing equipment on hallowed village churches of all places, it is one that has to be handled delicately, to say the least.

Voda is keen to emphasise that the signal boosters it’s using are small, well-hidden boxes that won’t spoil the look of these treasured buildings.

“Churches are typically very tall, on high ground, and close to the community we’re trying to connect. This makes them the perfect place to install a mobile site, and now we’ve developed technology that’s small enough not to spoil the appearance of the church,” said Andrea Dona, network and development director at Vodafone UK, in a statement. “Our aim is to use this cutting-edge technology to improve mobile coverage in as many rural locations as possible. This is an important step in ensuring rural communities can enjoy all the benefits of mobile connectivity.”

While there is no mention of site rental fees in the release, Vodafone is likely to be paying something to these churches to host its equipment, which should contribute to their upkeep, which, given their age and the materials used, is probably not cheap.

“The key consideration for us has always been the wishes of local communities, who have been widely supportive of these new sites. Net CS, our infrastructure facilitator, ensures that the new installations are unobtrusive, safe for our congregations and the wider community and will deliver benefits to church users and the whole community,” said Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans.

“Open RAN has made a lot of these sites viable for the first time, providing new locations that could go a long way towards driving better rural and urban coverage across the country,” added Peter Morrell-Brown, chairman of Net CS. “We see this project as just the beginning of the growth of church-based mobile coverage sites – the infrastructure that we’re putting in place is available for use by any operator, potentially solving a significant part of the UK’s mobile coverage challenge.”

A mobile site also needs a fast, reliable backbone network in order to connect end users quickly to the content and apps they need, and Vodafone has also been busy on that front.

On Wednesday it announced it has kicked off the final phase of Redstream Evolution, a multi-year project to migrate from three separate backbone networks to a converged, ultra-high capacity, software-defined networking (SDN)-enabled IP backbone.

Vodafone said the new architecture enables content partners to cache data in “more strategic locations” closer to end users, improving the performance and responsiveness of their services.

“Data is subject to the same rules as road congestion – if the transport network gets congested, we can’t get where we want to be as quickly as we want to,” said Dona, in a separate statement.

“Redstream Evolution is a significant investment to modernise this critical link in our Vodafone network, creating a new express superhighway bringing more than enough capacity to deliver an amazing network experience for customers today, while also staying well ahead of future data traffic demands,” she said.

All of the operator’s mobile, fixed and business customers have been progressively switched onto the new infrastructure, and it appears that process is nearing completion – although it didn’t say exactly when it expects to finish.


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