Your mobile sets a chain reaction in motion, every time you hit the call key. It involves thousands of circuits, miles of fibre optic cable, and a communications network that spans the globe.
To let you sweet talk your partner, wind up pals about footie scores or tell your mum that you got home safely, our hugely complex mobile network springs into action.
And like any perfectly functioning machine, there’s a series of complex components working together to deliver the goods. But what are they and how do they combine to let you speak to someone on the other side of the country, globe or street?
This sounds like a job for Dr Rob…
Rob Matthews is our EMF Unit Manager – that’s Electro Magnetic Fields. He’s the font of all knowledge when it comes to anything related to our network – think of him as you would David Bellamy, but with a shorter beard, and better with technology than he is with animals.
Let’s start with the basics
“For a mobile phone to be able to work it needs to be able to communicate with the rest of the network. Connection is made via radio waves in the same way a TV mast sends information to your telly at home. Your mobile phone sends information to a mast and the mast will, in turn, send information to your handset allowing you to communicate.
“With a combination of macro, micro, pico and femto cells our network spans the UK.”
A mast is basically the structure that supports the transmitting equipment, which is normally located at the top of the structure. This transmitting equipment consists of antennas, and we can locate them on all sorts of different structures – it doesn’t have to be a pointy mast. It could be a building, electricity pylons, and sometimes we disguise them, so they blend into their surroundings.”
So what exactly is a mobile network?
“Networks are made up of cells, which are the overlapping network of coverage areas that we have. Normally, the things that people refer to as masts are called macro cells, and they give wide area coverage.
For smaller areas, we use micro cells, which are the things you see that look like alarm boxes on the front of buildings. They give capacity to a smaller, more focused area. It’s like having a network of motorways (the macro cells) feeding into A-roads (the micro cells).
“Femto cells provide a coverage zone of around 50 to 100 metres.”
And then you’ve got pico cells – the B-roads in our motoring analogy. Pico cells are used indoors in places like shopping centres and office buildings to give dedicated capacity to large individual groups. It can be difficult to get complete coverage in places like this and that’s where pico cells are useful.
We have a Vodafone office right next to the M4 and whenever there was an accident on the motorway it congested our network. By introducing pico cells into the building we can now make calls and send texts or emails without any problems.
Finally there are femto cells, which are lower powered and designed to give even more dedicated coverage and capacity. Femto cells plug into existing broadband connections to carry phone calls back to our core network, and provide a coverage zone of around 50 to 100 metres.”
Providing proper coverage
“In theory, it’s possible to give coverage to the Vodafone customers in a small village using a number of strategically placed femto cells. These can be positioned out of the way, on phone boxes, attached to lampposts or on buildings.
Vodafone was the first operator to allow customers to use femto cells at home, plugging [a Vodafone Sure Signal] into their broadband connections to provide coverage in locations where it’s difficult for our network’s signal. It gave people coverage where they wouldn’t normally have it.”
With a combination of macro, micro, pico and femto cells our network spans the UK. In some places it’s very visible, with large towers communicating with each other to carry calls, texts and data. In others, it’s less visible, working in more subtle ways to keep you connected.
Whether you’re calling from Land’s End or John O’Groats, you’ll receive the same crystal clear service.
However you connect though, transmissions are constantly monitored and redirected by our Network Operations Centre at Vodafone HQ in Newbury. We keep tabs on the number of calls, watch out for spikes in data use and ensure texts are delivered on time, every time.
By carefully monitoring how our customers use the network, we’re often able to predict problems before they even happen, and make sure service isn’t interrupted.
The result? Whether you’re calling from Land’s End or John O’Groats, you’ll receive the same crystal clear service.
If you’ve got a question for Dr Rob about how our network operates, or the technicalities that go on behind the scenes, we’d love to hear from you. Put your questions to the good doctor in the comments section below.