London's newest and tallest landmark is an engineering marvel, but what you can't see is just as impressive as what you can. Here's the hidden story of how you bring signal to the skies.
How do you bring mobile signal to the top of the tallest manmade vantage point in Western Europe? It’s something you may never have considered before, but mobile signal doesn’t travel upwards quite as well as it does across, making the 72nd floor of a modern skyscraper a bit of a stretch. That is to say, it’s a stretch unless you employ the right network of hidden tech…Which is exactly what Vodafone’s done with The Shard to give our customers a strong, reliable signal. Even at the very peak of London’s skyline.
‘The View from The Shard’ is the name for the two viewing platforms that sit at the peak of London’s newest and biggest skyscraper. They’re huge, panoramic platforms on the 69th and 72nd floors, boasting a 360 degree view of London and the surrounding area. And by ‘surrounding area’, we mean ‘the country’ – the scope of the platforms is so vast that on a clear day you can see for 40 miles. We’ve even heard talk of some people being able to see all the way to the ocean.
And on a slightly cloudy day in January? It’s no less impressive:
All that’s undeniably stunning, but when you’re that high up (244 metres, to be precise), receiving the same strength of mobile reception as the ants down on ground level is tricky. That’s because most mobile antennas don’t point upwards, they point along the ground, where the majority of us tend to be. And that’s an issue when you simply have to post your panoramic snaps to every social network going, right there and then.
It’s not just the viewing platform that presents a problem, though. Any building that climbs more than 100 metres can be at risk of a drop in signal strength unless the right action’s taken. In The Shard, the viewing platforms sit atop a couple of top-flight restaurants, the 5-star Shangri-La hotel, and a busy office block. All of which needs access to mobile reception.
For a quick snapshot of how many people that means, picture this: the shard gets narrower as it heads to the skies, but even on the 18,000 square foot viewing platforms there’s room for 200 people at a time.
“Most antennas don’t point upwards, they point along the ground, where the majority of us tend to be.”
Work that all the way down a building that slowly widens as it descends, and factor in that there’s another 68 floors beneath the platforms, and we’re talking about an awful lot of people that’ll eventually be seeking connectivity at once. It’s no mean feat.
Luckily, Vodafone’s stepped in to make sure that happens, by way of an ingenious hidden system called ‘radio frequency (RF) over fibre’, which runs up the backbone of the building. If you think that sounds a bit complex, you’re not alone: we knew that Vodafone’s tech was scaling The Shard, but we didn’t know exactly how it worked, so we’ve caught up with Chris Hogg, one of the people in charge of the mission, to figure it all out.
Sending signal up
Pumping our Vodafone signal through The Shard is a full-on, top-to-bottom job, explains Chris. “Because mobile networks are configured to where people are – on the ground in the main – there is a limit to how far outside of its defined position an antenna can provide a signal before it degrades.
“Anything more than 100 metres above the antenna and you can’t guarantee the signal because that’s not where it’s intended to be used.” And that’s no good for The Shard’s viewing platform, which sits more than double that height above London.
The Shard: Essential stats and facts
- The Viewing platforms are 244 metres above London
- The spine of the building is comprised of two separate lift shafts, one that goes to the 33rd floor, and another that goes from 33 to 68
- Those lifts shoot up and down at a speed of 6 metres per second
- The viewing platforms contain a collection of unique Tell:Scopes, which use augmented reality to overlay facts about London’s skyline on their touchscreens as you navigate view of the capital
- The view on a clear day is 40 miles (64 km)
- The View from The Shard opens today, February 1st 2013.
That’s where Chris and his team comes in. “We’ve installed a system that converts the mobile signal into light that travels up a fibre optic cable, and then a unit at the other end converts it back into a radio (mobile) signal that gets distributed around the floor.”
Got that? Essentially, the signal that comes into the building is converted into a fibre optic one. Fibre optics carry information at pretty amazing rates. In fact, fibre optic cables are, at their top end, capable of carrying data at 100GB per second. The fibre carries the signal up the building, where it’s converted at key points back into a radio signal and beamed to the antennas hidden around the floor. These subtle little antennas look like this:
…And there’s several of them in the ceiling of every floor. “We’re here,” Chris says, pointing to a complex floor plan in a folder of nearly a hundred similar blueprints, “and there’s a directional antenna in the main reception area over there, and another there…” It turns out we’d walked past at least two antennas without spotting them.
But while antennas are scattered readily throughout The Shard, base stations are more scarce. “At the bottom of the building we’ve got enough RF (radio frequency) power to distribute it without needing a specialist coverage solution,” Chris explains. That means that the offices that take up the first 100 metres of The Shard’s innards will be OK for mobile coverage from the main basement unit alone…
But that basement unit is also where the RF over fibre system starts. “These are the RF cabinets,” says Chris as we enter a room in the Shard’s labyrinthine basement. “These generate the RF signal.”
“You’ve got signal coming in from the Vodafone core network, which comes into these big units. These units convert the signal so that it can be passed up to the other units in the building via fibre optic cables.” Those other units are on roughly every third floor from then up, all the way to floor 67, says Chris: “Three floors work off of each one unit,” Chris says, rounding off.
All systems are go
It’s a system that, when working, you’ll never notice. You won’t see any of the RF over fibre system unless you’re keeping a keen lookout for the tiny antennas scattered around the building. But you’ll notice it elsewhere – on the signal bars atop your phone’s screen.
The system means that from the base, to the Shangri-La hotel, the restaurants and all the way up to that amazing view, The Shard will be able to give you a flawless Vodafone signal.
And all that behind-the-scenes work makes the country’s newest landmark the highest man-made point in the UK that you’ll be able to text, call and Tweet from. Just make sure your pics are up to scratch.
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