UK carrier EE uses small cells to deploy rural LTE network

The British mobile carrier EE has hooked up a rural village in a deep north England valley using a new kind of network that doesn’t require fixed-line broadband connections to its base stations, and that can therefore be deployed within a few hours.

The deployment, in the Cumbrian village of Sebergham, uses a “micro network” system from equipment provider Parallel Wireless. The system’s cells connect to one another in a mesh network, which in turn connects wirelessly back to a normal macro base station some 6km (3.7 miles) away. This in-band backhaul system uses a 20MHz chunk of [company]EE[/company]’s 1800MHz LTE spectrum and, according to a company spokesman, would work over distances as great as 12-15km.

This approach basically means that, while ordinary phones struggle to get voice and data services from that faraway mast due to Sebergham’s tricky location, a solid-enough link can be made between the mast and the village’s micro network, which can then effectively spread that connectivity within the village area. Rival carrier [company]Vodafone[/company] has also begun using small cells to service remote communities, but that “Rural Open Sure Signal” program requires local broadband connectivity for the cells to plug into.

The lack of a need for large masts and underground cables “changes the economics of mobile coverage,” EE said in a statement.

The carrier said just three or four cells can cover between 100 and 150 buildings (Sebergham has 129 houses) over an area of half a square mile. Handily, as the base stations can be stuck on the building facade within a few hours, and as they’re unobtrusive compared to the sort of equipment that requires a mast, there’s apparently no need for need for planning applications.

EE and Parallel Wireless put together a promotional video for the launch:


EE said it’s aiming to deploy the system in around 1,500 rural communities over the next three years. “We’ve been working closely with Government on the long-term ambition to bring voice coverage to more of the U.K., and we believe that this world-first technology will demonstrate significant advancements against that vision,” EE CEO Olaf Swantee said in a statement.

Parallel Wireless’s system is centered on an LTE access controller that it claims is the first carrier-grade network orchestrator to combine network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) technology with full compliance with standard cellular industry interfaces. This controller organizes the small cells, which Parallel Wireless said can come in both outdoor and in-vehicle varieties.

Small cells have in the last year or two become a big deal for mobile carriers, but generally in the context of cities, where their lamppost-friendly size and self-organizing capabilities make it easier to “densify” networks to keep up with increasing bandwidth demand.

This article was updated at 2:30 AM PT to add detail about the in-band backhaul system EE is using.