Vodafone UK’s Prigg on 5G, site acquisitions and the future of 2G networks

Vodafone UK test centre
Vodafone UK's headquarters in Newbury

On the hot seat … with Kye Prigg, head of mobile network at Vodafone UK

FierceWireless:Europe caught up with Kye Prigg, head of mobile network at Vodafone UK, to find out what the mobile network operator’s plans are for carrier aggregation, network investments, LTE coverage and more.

FW:E: Can you provide the latest update on Vodafone’s recent and planned investments in its mobile network, and what the main focus areas are?

Kye Prigg: We've invested around £2 billion in the network hardware, software and services over the last couple of years. That’s the most we've ever invested in the 30-year history of the UK and we're not done yet. We are going to be putting another £2 billion into the network from 2016 to 2018. The bulk of the investment is going into Project Beacon, which is our network-sharing agreement with Telefonica O2 UK that forms the basic platform for our mobile services.

FW:E: Can you provide more detail about the progress of Beacon?

Prigg: The deployment started in 2013. Basically, we build the network in the west of the country and Telefonica builds in the east -- so there’s a split down the middle of the UK. We provide 2G, 3G and 4G services to Vodafone and Telefonica subscribers in the west utilising their spectrum assets and ours and they do the same for our subscribers in the east. The vendors we currently use in the radio network are Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

In London, we each operate our own 2G and 3G networks but we share the construction of the 4G network, with Telefonica building the 4G network in North London and Vodafone responsible for the network in the south of the capital.

The network sharing arrangement enables rapid expansion, with around 400 new base stations added every month across the nation.

The great thing about Beacon is that we took the Vodafone grid and we took the Telefonica grid and made a best of breed. By combining those two networks we will have a better coverage and capacity than we would have alone. As things stand, our 4G network population coverage is 95 per cent and we’re targeting indoor and outdoor voice coverage across 90 per cent of the UK population across our network by the end of 2017.

FW:E: How do you manage your tower assets and do you have plans to sell towers, in line with the current European trend?

Prigg: I couldn't comment about the selling of towers. We operate a 50:50 joint venture with Telefonica called CTIL, which is responsible for actively managing the base stations, site acquisition, planning consent and so on. It works very well. Site acquisition is always a challenge of course, but we are making good progress.

FW:E: Can you describe how and where Vodafone is deploying LTE Advanced carrier aggregation technology and how you are making use of your existing spectrum assets?

Prigg: The basic Beacon design brings us a 10 MHz carrier in the 800 MHz frequency band for LTE, and that’s the default for each and every base station we build.

On top of that, here in the UK we have a 5 MHz channel of 1800 MHz spectrum; 15 MHz of 2100 MHz; 20 MHz of 2.6 GHz FDD spectrum; and 20 MHz of 2.6 GHz TDD spectrum. We also own 20 MHz of the 1400 MHz SDL band.

When it comes to two-way carrier aggregation, we kicked off a programme of work about six months ago to re-farm some of our 3G spectrum into LTE. We then set up an additional UMTS900 carrier, so we now run two UMTS900 carriers for 3G voice and data.

We’ve now re-farmed well over 1,000 sites from 3G to 4G across the top five cities and London, so if you look at Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester we actually have covered those cities with a very good layer of two-way carrier aggregation using 20 MHz of spectrum. Within just a few short months we were able to basically double the LTE capacity available across those markets.

Also in London, we have deployed three-way carrier aggregation and are busy looking at how the technology that can increase capacity at commuter hubs and airports.

We are also deploying small cells and in-building solutions into the network and looking at how we bring additional capacity efficiently to where our customers need it.

FW:E: Vodafone UK has not followed the approach taken by other group operating companies of headlining increasingly faster transmission speeds. What is the strategy in terms of speeds?

Prigg: We're not chasing the peak speeds. It's not about shouting about 200, 300, or 400 megabits per second, it's about getting the capacity where people need it. Our tests of two way and three-way carrier aggregation in London and in the top cities with some of the new terminals now available have shown excellent results.

We’re also looking out how we can get the maximum efficiency out of our existing assets and therefore we are putting 4x4 MIMO into the network. We have also done some trials with 8x8 MIMO. We're very interested in MIMO and the efficiency gains that that could bring for us.

FW:E: Can you provide an update on your progress with 5G development work?

Prigg: The strategy with 5G is to build on the foundation of 4G, so you're adding that additional coverage layer with very, very high performance services on top.

Obviously we're working very closely with our partners, the vendors, the standardisation forums and so forth, but we also have a number of partnerships with different universities. The timing for 5G networks is around 2020 or just before then. Obviously it depends very much on the maturity of the standard and the commercial availability of equipment.

FW:E: Vodafone Group has said publicly that it plans to start switching off 3G networks from around 2020. Can you give some flavour on the company’s intensions for the 3G and 2G networks in the UK?

Prigg: We are seeing a lot of people migrating over to 4G services. The 3G network is declining in line with that from a data perspective, but our voice is still carried on our 3G and 2G networks. I would say probably within the next four years we will have most of our customers on 4G. Then it comes to carrying voice over the LTE network, and we're working on that at the moment. That all plays into being able to eventually turn off 3G, but we’re going to have to monitor that very, very carefully.

With regard to 2G, we are expecting to continue the 2G network for quite some time after 2020, at least until 2025, because of machine-to-machine communications and the Internet of Things (IoT).

FW:E: Can you outline some of the major challenges that lie ahead for the continuing expansion of the Vodafone network in the UK?

Prigg: There are a number of things that we struggle with and one of them is around site acquisitions -- getting the sites through the planning process and approved so that we can move to construction. One interesting development going through parliament at the moment relates to the height of the antennas. We are hoping to see a reform in the law so we can increase the height of antennas in order to improve coverage and performance for our customers.

In addition, operating a network is very, very expensive, and this is always a challenge for us. The public sector in the UK owns a lot of land, for example, so if there were regulation that could help us get on to that land that would be extremely useful for us, especially as we look to bring new sites and new coverage/capacity into the grid.

When it comes to future-proofing the network, I think a lot of 5G is going to rest upon having access to dark fibre and being able to bring very high-capacity links into 5G sites. I think having easy access to dark fibre in the country would really help us a lot. Of course we have our own infrastructure that we use comprehensively and we also use fibre from BT and other suppliers.

FW:E: Will you build any more of your own fixed network?

Prigg:  This isn’t my area, but we continue to invest in our mobile and fixed network.