The new 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN) being built by EE is helping to expand the mobile operator’s geographic coverage, particularly in rural areas. EE is responsible for the funding and building of most of the radio access network (RAN). The Home Office is responsible for building a further 300 new-build sites in the most remote parts of Britain under the Extended Area Services (EAS) programme.
Richard Harrap, Managing Director of ESN at EE/BT, says: “We are delivering a significant amount of coverage rurally and in other difficult-to-reach areas like marine. EE is some way ahead of the other operators on rural coverage, thanks to the investment we have made for ESN.”
The delivery of ESN involves upgrading around 18,000 existing 4G sites and building approximately 700 new ones. Upgrades usually comprise a mix of swapping out antennas, changing over equipment and upgrading transmission to add capacity to the backhaul. Most of this work is now complete.
Two thirds of the new-build sites are in Scotland, 11% are in Wales and the rest are scattered around different parts of the UK. “Most of that estate is built or very well advanced,” reports Harrap. “But we will probably be building new sites for the next few years, either because it is deemed operationally necessary or perhaps because a new road has been built.”
The new builds are often complex and challenging to deliver, both in terms of gaining planning permission and actual construction, due to their locations in remote and often environmentally sensitive areas. Harrap says the target date for new-site completions is the first half of next year, which is in line with ESN programme timelines.
The coverage from all EE ESN sites will be available to commercial customers as well as the emergency services, so rural areas will see a considerable improvement. EE will also install its base station equipment on the EAS sites, which again will be available for both ESN and EE commercial customers.
Under the SRN up to 292 EAS sites will be made available by the Home Office. The other operators are entitled to use the EAS sites. However, EE has additionally offered the other operators access to all its 700 new-build ESN sites. This, plus the HO provided EAS sites, will provide a huge boost to rural 4G coverage in the UK, a huge collaborative effort by the UK mobile operators.
“Seven hundred new masts in remote locations are a very exciting asset to have,” says Harrap.
“Conversations are ongoing with all operators that share those sites, and this has been discussed as part of the Shared Rural Network [SRN]. It would reduce the amount of infrastructure on the ground and increase coverage for everyone.”
Harrap says there is also an opportunity for operators to share transmission equipment, although this is complicated because some sites have satellite backhaul. But he adds that if all the operators do get involved, the installation of fibre backhaul could become a viable economic option.
Additionally, the recent Shared Rural network agreement (which is discussed on page 21) will now provide some funding for EAS upgrades, as well as paying for further new all-operator sites in total not-spots to extend coverage to 95% of the country.
“So, over the next few years everyone can enjoy the benefit of improved rural coverage,” says Harrap. “There are still planning challenges, but it should open up rural coverage for all operators.” When it comes to sharing masts, he says: “We obviously need to make a fair return on our investment, but we are very open to agreeing terms with other operators to use any of our sites.”
Looking ahead to upgrading the emergency services to be able to use 5G, Harrap says the expectation is that 4G mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) services will provide the bedrock of emergency service communications for years to come. He points out that optimisation of voice over LTE took time; in the same way, MCPTT will take time too.
“There is a lot of 4G innovation still to incorporate here; we fully expect ESN to add 5G in time, but currently we see 5G as a complementary service to mission-critical 4G,” explains Harrap.
This article was first published in Issue 3 - UK5G Innovation Briefing - which you can access here.
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