We talk to Vodafone UK's Mike Hayes - the man who co-ordinates and organises Vodafone’s temporary networks for events around the country...
If you’ve ever been to a big national event – whether it’s a country fair like the Royal Welsh Show or a massive music festival like Reading or Leeds – chances are you’ve experienced signal from one of our temporary masts, which are rolled out to around 50 special events throughout the year.
So how is it that you get your Vodafone signal in the middle of a field – whether you’re enjoying the aerial acrobatics at the Royal International Air Tattoo, or watching the Husqvarna shearing at the Balmoral Show? Well, it’s down to a lot of planning, and it’s a task that comes with its fair share of interesting challenges. To find out more, we’ve had a chat with Vodafone UK’s Mike Hayes – the man who co-ordinates and organises Vodafone’s temporary networks for events around the country…
Rolling out the network…
The starting point? Figuring out what events we can cover effectively, and as Mike explains, the approach here is very much one of quality over quantity…
“Every year we sit down as a team and look at a calendar of the year’s top events across the country. From there, we work out which events we can effectively provide extra mobile coverage to – a decision that’s based on a number of different things, including capacity of existing local network, the geography of the event site and the number of people attending” says Mike. “We usually support around 40-50 events each year, most of which happen during the summer months as music festivals, county shows and sporting events take advantage of the good (ish) British weather!
Our network-boosting tech is transported via special trailers which can literally roll up on site ready for deployment. Typically this is in locations which, for the majority of the year, have next to no usage and, therefore, little need for mobile coverage. So when an event like the New Forest and Hampshire Country Show comes around, with over 95,000 visitors we bring in these additional masts to ensure we’re providing signal for the event’s duration, so they can share their photos and videos with their friends who aren’t there, or call people if they’re lost etc.
And it’s not always as easy as it sounds:
“It’s not as simple as bringing in one of these network boosting trailers for each event.”
“It’s not as simple as bringing in one of these network boosting trailers for each event,” he adds. “When we first decide to support an event with our temporary masts we look at the detail of what’s actually required to ensure we can support with sufficient capacity to give all of our customers a great experience.
“One good example of that this year was Goodwood Festival of Speed. For years we’ve been deploying a single trailer to support the event but this year we deployed three and the feedback has been fantastic – with the organisers very pleased that all had gone well, with great Vodafone signal throughout the weekend.”
All sounds pretty straight-forward so far, right? Thing is, these plans will only take you so far, and Mike’s network of trailers and temporary masts has to be ready to react fast when new events pop up.
“Ideally we know three to six months before an event that we’ll be supplying temporary masts wherever that event is taking place, but sometimes things just come up and we have to react pretty quickly. We deployed a trailer at short notice for the America’s Cup World Series in Portsmouth recently, and managed to get it all sorted in about two and a half weeks – that’s definitely the quickest we’ve ever managed it!”
So how does it work? Well, deploying a temporary network isn’t just a case of sending a trailer or temporary mast down the motorway and parking it up nearby:
“The biggest challenge we have is transmission,” explains Mike. “Our temporary masts are linked to existing permanent Vodafone masts by microwaves. Sometimes we will have several options all with sufficient bandwidth, but occasionally we can only see one mast, and if that mast hasn’t got the required capacity to support a temporary solution, then we need to upgrade the site and that can take time.
“Often we need a 20+ metre tall mast for a good line of sight from a temporary to permanent mast. Some of our smaller trailers are only 17 metres so we have to plan carefully to ensure the trailers we deploy to an event, which has lots of trees for example, are the 24 or 33 metre structures that sit well above the tree line – for uninterrupted signal.
“Access to the event can be a tricky one too” as Mike explains, “As much as everyone wants us there, providing great 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage, the organisers don’t necessarily want masts right in the middle of their event. Events in central London, for example, often present an interesting challenge. Sometimes we have to think outside the box to find the best place for our temporary masts – but we love a good challenge and we work with the organisers to ensure we come up with the perfect place to provide great coverage to our customers.
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“Incidentally, those 33 metre temporary masts at our disposal for special events are taller than most permanent signal masts around the country, so they can cope being put in the middle of a copse of trees – they’ll still connect to the permanent mast and provide good coverage at the event.
“At the moment current UK government regulations make it quite difficult to get planning permission to build permanent masts at a bigger height like 33 metres. However, masts at that height actually allow us to provide incredibly dependable signal for everyone within range – so it’s something we’re working on with the Government and Ofcom to try and rectify.”
“Ready for anything…”
Even when Mike and the team manage to get over some of these hurdles, there are usually more challenges left to deal with. There are some things you just can’t prepare for…
“Last year one of our Glastonbury masts got struck by lightning…”
“You have to expect the unexpected a little bit,” laughs Mike. “Last year one of our Glastonbury masts got struck by lightning – you can’t do much about that! We had one event where we deployed a trailer, and then someone put a crane up for some building work, and it was disrupting our signal with the nearest fixed mast.
“At Silverstone this year we deployed five trailers and got great feedback from the public.
But as it turned out, despite our best planning efforts with the event organisers, one of our trailers ended up being positioned smack bang in the middle of the flight path for all the helicopters coming in!”
“Planning will only get you so far,” Mike says in closing. “With more events, such as Glasgow Summer Sessions, Great Dorset Steam Fair, Goodwood Revival, Reading and Leeds Festival and Creamfields this month, you can be sure that our team will be ready for anything!”
Want to know more? Click here to find out exactly how Vodafone is upgrading and expanding its network across the UK.