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Virgin Media O2 accelerates industry’s largest rollout of small cells to deliver cleaner, greener and more flexible 5G network solutions

  • 4 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 30 Jun 2022
  • Last modified 30 Jun 2022
30 June: Virgin Media O2 Virgin Media O2 has today unveiled details of its burgeoning network of small cells across London, the largest of any major operator, as it continues to invest in upgrading the UK.
  • Over 1,300 small cells deployed around London, boosting signal for millions of customers
  • First MNO to create small cell solutions for bus shelters, boosting capacity in busy areas 
  • Small cells enable network capacity to be quickly added in certain areas, reducing congestion 
  • Sites deployed in key locations such as Southwark, Croydon, Camden and Westminster

The technology is enabling the company to accelerate its customer-centric 4G and 5G rollout in a more environmentally friendly way while boosting capacity where it’s needed most. The deployment has helped Virgin Media O2 be named as the most reliable network in London, according to new benchmarking results from Global Wireless Solutions. 

The converged operator has taken the lead on integrating small cells into its network, with more than 1,300 live sites across London, providing cheaper, cleaner and more flexible solutions to boost network capacity and coverage in high density urban areas. The sites, which typically have a range of 80-120 metres, are installed with minimal disruption (typically installations can be completed within 6 weeks of the sites being acquired), can target congestion across the network and add capacity as required, minimising outages. 

With the support of local authorities, their Digital Champions and other stakeholders, the technology has been implemented with a number of partners, including Cellnex UK, Freshwave, Ontix and the City of London. The small cells are usually bolted to existing street furniture, such as lampposts, avoiding the need to build new street infrastructure and providing a quicker, cleaner installation process. In some busier locations, around 20% of network traffic flows through small cells rather than the macro layer, showing the value they provide in easing congestion. The technology uses licensed L18 / 1800MHz airwaves, with some initial trial locations using 2.6GHz spectrum. 

In another first, Virgin Media O2 has developed a small cells solution which can be deployed within bus shelters. The trials, created in partnership with Freshwave, involve new small cells connected to the fibre within bus shelters, which are also 5G ready. The antenna on the rooftop has been built for multi-operator use, should there be a demand. In a similar trial, Virgin Media O2 is also trialling a new payphone deployment across sites in Westminster with Cellnex UK.

The deployment of small cells drastically cuts down on red tape and planning processes, with Virgin Media O2 Network Architects working closely with city planners to implement the cells as new buildings are erected, further reducing time and costs. The company plans to expand its network outside London, with a number of pilots in play across the UK, and is already working to deploy small cells to support the Commonwealth Games this summer. 

The successful trials open up the possibility of rolling out small cell solutions at scale across the UK to boost Virgin Media O2’s 4G and 5G networks. With over 10,000 bus shelters in London alone, and hundreds of thousands of different OOH sites across the UK, the future is exciting for a technology with a lower carbon footprint and cost efficiencies.  

Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, said: “This is further good news for London’s digital infrastructure. It comes about through our partnerships on the ground between boroughs and telecommunications, supporting local rollouts. Small cells don't just mean much better connections, they also boost jobs and growth, helping us to build a better London for everyone. It's great to see this investment continuing across London.”

Jeanie York, Chief Technology Officer at Virgin Media O2 said: “Building a 5G network is a complex job, so we are constantly looking at ways to create efficiencies via collaboration with partners that will ultimately benefit our customers. Technologies such as small cells help us increase network bandwidth, which allows us to keep up with customer demand, with data traffic levels increasing 34% year on year. 

“Our Radio Network Engineering team have done a fantastic job to develop our small cell delivery programme. I’m excited to see where this will take us as we look to roll out at scale to provide a more sustainable solution that still provides fast and reliable connectivity for our customers as we upgrade the UK.”

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