It's no walk in the park bringing reliable 4G to coastal regions and busy towns, but we have a bunch of clever signal-boosting tricks up our sleeves. Here's how we do it...

portsmouth beach

There’s no part of the UK that isn’t a priority when it comes to bringing great, reliable signal to our customers’ devices. And to prove that, we’re embarking on a series of tours around the UK to showcase what we’ve been up to behind the scenes in improving the network.

We recently stopped off in Portsmouth, where we’ve been on a mission to increase capacity and provide a consistently great reception, even in the face of a host of challenges – from buildings to planning authorities and even from the sea itself.

Magical mystery tour

Leading our Portsmouth tour was, as ever, Vodafone UK’s resident network guru Dr Rob Matthews. Dr Rob eats, sleeps and breathes network, and he has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the sites and masts which make Vodafone’s customers tick, along with how things are evolving.

And to prove that knowledge, Dr Rob left the actual destinations for our Portsmouth roadshow up to fate, by picking places from a hat. First up? The Southsea Marina.

portsmouth marina

“Can you spot our mast?” he asks us, wryly, but doing so is difficult to say the least. The thing is, the Southsea Marina is nothing but masts, attached to the dozens of boats parked up in rows. “There are plenty of masts here, sure,” Rob adds, “but they’re the wrong kind.” The actual Vodafone mast for the area was a surprisingly long way off – a small scattering of white tech atop a student accommodation block, off in the distance across the bay.

portsmouth flats

“What you can see here is the challenge we face in beautiful areas like this, which is: where can we put a structure that won’t stick out like a sore thumb? So being on top of an existing building helps us get around that by providing coverage to all of the surrounding area without being an eyesore.”

And while you’ve probably never noticed them, these kinds of sites are everywhere, hidden in plain sight.

These masts can sometimes cover up to a couple of miles in radius, but it all depends on the number of people in the area and how much data they are using.

“A 4G site like that will serve about a mile in radius,” says Rob, “depending on how many users there are. If you put a pipe into it that’s 100 Mbps for instance, and its users are all using 2 mbps, you can only serve 50 users. So in densely populated areas like Portsmouth, these sites will only cover around half a mile in radius as we like to have a bit of an overlap to ensure customers always get great coverage.”

It sounds straightforward, but there’s a catch: you can’t just put more sites around town without problems arising:

“If you overlap these sites too far you’ll end up with what we call dominance issues, where your handset doesn’t know which mast to talk to, resulting in dropped calls. So it’s a really difficult task to plan a network.”

portsmouth flats 2

The answer, then, is to increase each site’s capacity, which is where a good chunk of our £2 billion (and counting) network investment over 2014 and 2015 is going:

“We want to increase capacity – not just coverage – to allow more people to stream music or watch YouTube videos and all that great 4G stuff. That’s alongside our partnership with Telefonica, which allows us to share masts. So here we’ve got our mast less than a mile from Telefonica’s, and that means that they can overlap and add more capacity.”

Pushing 4G indoors and up high

Next up: Southsea Castle, which is situated on a beautiful strip of green right on the seafront. Constructed by Henry VIII in 1544, the castle isn’t exactly mobile friendly, which makes it a great place to demonstrate how our low-frequency 4G manages to push itself through walls that other frequencies can’t.

portsmouth castle

“What we can do here is see how the signal travels through buildings,” Dr Rob explains. “Here we’re being served by another site on top of a nearby block of flats, but by just coming a few feet indoors, most networks will lose a lot of signal. And that just shows you the kinds of challenges we have with network design. Every network bought 800MHz spectrum, which is great at getting deep inside buildings, and that’s why we launched our 4G service on it” You can read all about how our 800MHz spectrum gives you a better indoor signal here.

And he wasn’t wrong; outside the castle we had a strong 18Mbps download and upload speed. Inside? Things dropped off slightly as we’d expect, but not as much as the rest of the pack – one of which plummeted by more than 75%.

On the way back, we passed another site that Dr Rob says really highlights the kind of difficulties we face when it comes to providing the kind of reliability and coverage we want from the network. It was a 12 metre pole that we zipped past in a flash, almost indistinguishable from a street lamp. And yet, it’s causing a lot of fuss.

portsmouth ookla

“We wanted to upgrade the mast,” Rob explains, “but the local authority refused us permission to do it on the grounds of visual intrusion. We only wanted a two metre increase on a 12metre pole, – and in an area that already has lots of street furniture and lamp posts anyway – but that was denied. So you can see how difficult it is for us to do the work we need to do sometimes. The trouble is that in some cases local residents are pushing to get sites removed, but what happens then is they’ll experience a loss in coverage, which would disrupt their lives.”

Wrapping things up

Throughout the day, we visited three different seaside locales within Portsmouth, each with their own challenges to face. Be it water, finding the right spot, nearby building materials or network capacity, it’s clear that Dr Rob and our network team have their work cut out for them – not just in Portsmouth but up and down the whole of the UK.

Luckily, there are no finer network experts than the ones at Vodafone, and with over £2 billion in investment currently being put to good use, we’re well on our way to conquering every roadblock in our way.

portsmouth pub

“We’ve come here because there will be people here who look at this lovely coastal landscape and don’t want it blighted by phone masts,” says Dr Rob, “so our challenge is to find subtle spots to put our kit, up their capacity, and get them running really well on our 4G network. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

More on 4G signals: If you’re keen to get to grips with signals, frequencies, and the science behind 4G, click here.

Providing unbeatable indoor and outdoor 4G coverage Coverage assessed by LCC, Dec 2014-Feb 2015. Top parity in 31 of 33 towns and cities measured against key competitors with 4G coverage. Signal thresholds determined by Vodafone’s international standards. See Coverage may vary.