Features | 06 Sep 2023

Moo-sic festivals 2023: how COWs made a summer of strong signal

Ensuring special events, from Glastonbury to the Henley Regatta, get mobile signal requires a fleet of special equipment, planning ahead by a year and eagle-eyed monitoring.

“The King’s Coronation – that was a logistical nightmare!” Andrea Dona, Vodafone’s Chief Network Officer in the UK, is as enthused and animated about the challenges of bringing Vodafone mobile signal to special events as he is about the successes.

Both security and aesthetic considerations placed unusually restrictive conditions on where Vodafone could place its masts to ensure that both the public and ITN could get the signal they needed on the big day. “A few metres here, a few hundred metres there, it really impacts your performance,” Andrea explained. While this applies to any locality under everyday circumstances, it’s especially true when there’s a surge of people visiting a small location for just a few hours or days.

The Coronation is just one of over 70 special events in the UK that Vodafone has provided or is providing with mobile coverage during 2023, spanning the length of the country from Scotland to the Isle of Wight.

How COWs quietly wow the crowds

Vodafone’s planning for any given event starts long before the organisers open their doors to the public; up to a year in advance for some city-sized. Surveying the site in question, requesting access from landowners and working out how to get lorry loads of equipment up narrow country roads – these are are serious logistical issues that can’t be left to chance.

Mobile signal at an event will be provided by one or more ‘cells on wheels’, or COWs. A COW is effectively a mobile mast – and its associated equipment – mounted on a trailer manned by a crew of three or four engineers. Setting up a COW can not only require a hoist, crane and/or cherry picker, but also the usual data links, power and a suitable location. This trifecta is tricky enough to secure under everyday circumstances in the UK’s villages, towns and cities – never mind the stadia, fields, valleys, shorelines and other unusual venues that host festivals and other such special events.

For festivals and shows that take place in remote rural locations, short-range microwave radios may be needed. These link the COW to the rest of Vodafone’s network as the usual fibre optic or copper cables often aren’t available or can’t be laid.

But such radio links need to be within line-of-sight of the next mast along to work, so locations need to be reasonably clear of obstructions such as trees and hills – obstructions that can also block the mobile signal from the mast once it’s operational.

While Vodafone may have the pick of locations at events that it has partnered with, that’s not always the case, with space at any given event in high demand for stages, retailers and of course the room needed for audiences and tents.

Powering the COW takes more than running a mere extension lead. If grid power isn’t available, then diesel generators are used. The generators then need to be carefully tended and guarded to ensure they continue working properly and aren’t ‘borrowed’ by either desperate or opportunistic third parties.

Getting a COW up-and-running in a surveyed location can take at least a day, often two to three days. But the work doesn’t stop once it’s powered on. Engineers carefully monitor and adjust the COW’s antennas and other equipment to ensure that it delivers the speeds and capacity that the public expect.

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Frederic Sundin, Vodafone’s Head of Network Connectivity and Deployment explains: “You have stages in the way, depending on where the special event is, or it can be hilly, it can be trees. That can block the signal. And you need to predict where the crowds will be, because they move around.”

Vodafone’s engineers can draw upon analyses of traffic patterns in previous years when providing coverage at events that the company has been to before. But for new events or those that have relocated to new venues, responding quickly to unexpected events can be crucial.

For example, if there is a massive shift of people up a hill because they’re all watching and snapping/livestreaming the sunset, then engineers must be able to spot this and then actively optimise the network for such a sudden concentration of people in a small space.

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Data demands

The demands expectations of the public lie at the heart of why Vodafone provides mobile coverage at special events. “Festivals, summer events – the UK audience just love it. They flock to them. And, rightly so, they demand good coverage, a good experience,” Andrea said.

There is, of course, the other crowd at any given event – the organisers and the retailers. From ticketing to contactless payments, a variety of business processes now rely on mobile connectivity, not to mention first responders from the emergency services and event security.

The future

Even though all the events covered by Vodafone are so different from one another, there is one item topping Frederic’s wishlist for future events. Given the complexities involved in providing it, mobile connectivity for all event organisers should be “an integral part of planning along with water, loos and electricity”.

Given that diesel generators not only use a fossil fuel, but are cantankerous and a target for loose fingers, Vodafone is investigating various potential alternatives, such as self-powering masts.

While the UK is, compared to other European countries, fairly unique in the far-flung geographic distribution of its festivals and other summer events, there’s still scope to learn lessons from Vodafone’s operations in other countries. Teams in Greece, Spain and Italy, for example, have amassed significant expertise in how to mitigate the effect of extreme summertime temperatures on telecoms equipment.

As 2023 gradually winds down, planning is already well underway for next year’s calendar of events. Most of the COWs themselves will undergo maintenance and upgrades over the winter, ready to spring into action whenever the call comes.

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