We chat to Vodafone UK Head of Networks Petek Ergul about the ongoing 4G rollout, and how she monitors the network from her own car...
The last time Vodafone Social talked about the progress of our 4G roll out, it was back in February and Bridgend had just become the 400th town to go live with Vodafone 4G. That was a major milestone for us at the time, but things move fast in the world of 4G: we’ve already raced past the 500 mark (Pontypridd by the way) and there’s much more to come!
As Vodafone UK’s Head of Networks, Petek Ergul is the person in charge of delivering our burgeoning 4G network to your pocket. We sat down with her in the midst of her busy schedule to get the big picture on 4G, to see what we can expect in the future, and to find out how she takes testing into her own hands…
‘In our own hands…’
“The feedback around 4G so far has been fantastic,” says Petek, “and that’s what really drives us. And that’s particularly true in the rural areas. I think when we bring 4G into major towns and cities, it’s more expected. But when we bring 4G to rural areas, it really changes people’s lives, so it’s really satisfying to bring that freedom to a community.”
That feedback is hugely important and a good sign that we’re getting things right. But as Petek freely admits, there’s plenty of work still to do…
“There are still plenty more towns to go,” she says. “We’re going full steam ahead with the rollout now – it’s a major priority for Vodafone UK to make sure that we hit that 98% population coverage commitment using 2G, 3G and 4G.
“Things are really accelerating now because we’re further down the tracks and have direct control over how things progress,” Petek continues. “The beginning of a rollout like this can be slow because there’s a lot of legal preparation to be done before you can actually start to build anything. We need to design the network, get planning permission and rights from landlords to build on their property as well as getting BT Openreach to put in the fibre which connects the masts onto our network.
“There’s a lot of stuff that has to happen at the beginning of the pipeline…”
“So there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen at the beginning of the pipeline and it takes a lot of time for these things to get done. That’s is why we are working with the Government and Ofcom to try and modernise of out of date property and planning laws which delay our ability to roll out our network, as well as encouraging government provide better access to public sector land and buildings to place mobile infrastructure on them.”
“Thankfully, a lot of our initial preparation has been done now, so I can actually start sending my teams out and get building the infrastructure.”
Bringing 4G to a town is only the beginning of the work we do, though. As Petek explains, the installation of 4G sites in an area is just the start of a long, continuous process of improvement.
“Firstly, the deployment team will head out to the site to install everything and test the quality of the connection. Once we’re happy with all of that, the site is accepted and it becomes operational. But that’s only stage one,” explains Petek. “I also have an optimisation team that goes back to sites after we’ve set them live, to try to maximise the level of service we’re providing. They look at small geographic areas – a single site and those surrounding it – and work out what needs to be changed to further improve the quality of our network in the area.
“I also have a team of drive-testers, although in London it’s more like a walk-test! They drive around the country with network antennae on their cars and record all the data. It means we can diagnose problem areas, and then we come up with action plans to improve the performance there as well.
“My car is actually kitted out to drive-test the network too!”
“My car is actually kitted out to drive-test the network too!” Petek laughs. “I’m quite mobile these days, as I have teams around the country that I visit quite regularly, and I think it’s an important part of making sure we’re completely on top of things as a single unit.
“So I figured, why not take advantage of those journeys and test the network as I’m going around? I have phones with sims from all the other operators installed in the car as well, so I’m constantly tapped into the country’s network!
“I think it’s crucial for people to know that brining 4G to a place is not just a single event – we don’t just install 4G and leave. The whole thing is part of an ongoing cycle, which is all designed to find and eliminate not-spots and improve on any weak areas of our network. There’s huge effort that goes into strengthening our performance and the network for the benefits of all of our customers, wherever they live and work.”
But, as Dr Rob Matthews touched upon when we spoke with him a few weeks ago, there are always more than a few challenges we encounter whilst trying to bring strong, consistent mobile internet to your area:
“There are lots of hurdles we have to jump to bring better coverage to an area.”
“There are lots of hurdles we have to jump to bring better coverage to an area,” says Petek. “It’s not easy to get the legal rights to start with, and for some the masts themselves are an eyesore so lots of people don’t want to be able to see them in the local area.
“Masts are a real problem in the industry right now,” she explains. “Now that summer is here and the trees have grown and have their leaves again, it causes real issues in some parts of the network because the masts aren’t high enough, and they’re being blocked out by the trees. It’s very clear from our data that trees cause a problem in the spring and summer months.
“However, if you want to increase the height of the mast to provide better coverage to an area, it’s a real struggle to do that in the UK – local authorities are very reluctant to let us do that.
“I think the mentality needs to change in the country,” she adds. “We keep trying to convince local councils that it needs to be done, because mobile communications are such a vital part of people’s everyday lives. There have been baby steps towards that understanding, but that’s about it. There needs to be a complete change of mindset in terms of how we approach the whole industry.”
Focused on 4G
Ultimately, Petek hopes that legislation will adapt to the rising importance of mobile communications. But in the meantime, she’s focused on one thing: advancing our 4G network, and bringing it to as many people as possible:
“There’s a lot to look forward to in the future,” she says in closing. “Hopefully legislation and changes to outdated property and planning laws will come through which makes it easier for us to achieve our goals in regards to the network, but right now, we’re not worried about that. We will always make sure that the network is ready for the future. We’ll keep an eye on that, but the focus is on 4G.
“There is so much demand for fast, reliable mobile internet right now, and it’s really incredible to see how much data is going through 4G.That’s why it isn’t enough to just spread the network. We have to strengthen it too, and keep adding greater capacity so that everyone can use it however they want, whether that means watching videos, streaming music or just web browsing.”
4G signal explained… Confused by frequencies and megahertz? Click here to check out our simple breakdown of the science behind 4G.