Network deployment

We are working to minimise the impact of our base stations on local communities and the environment as we continue to expand our network

Network deployment

We are deploying innovative technical solutions to extend and improve the capacity of our networks, while minimising the impact of our base stations on communities and the environment.

Our mobile services rely on a network of more than 283,000 base stations to send and receive calls and data. We continue to expand our network to enhance our customers’ experience by extending the coverage and speed of our network and improving capacity for new services (see Project Spring study right). We are also working to reduce the overall number of base stations sites needed to achieve the desired service by deploying innovative technical solutions and cooperating with other operators to share sites.

When choosing a base station site, we must balance many, often conflicting, factors. These include optimum network coverage, technical considerations, community concerns and visual impact. Most people welcome improved coverage and services but we recognise that some have concerns about the location of new base stations. We aim to understand and address these concerns through community consultation.

Some people are also concerned about potential health issues relating to radio frequency (RF) fields. Our base stations and mobile devices operate well within the safety limits set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection. Our vision is to lead the industry in responding to public concerns regarding mobile devices, masts and health and we have a Group website that provides extensive information on this issue, including links to independent scientific reviews. For further information please read Mobiles, masts and health.

Read on to find out more about our approach to responsible network deployment.

In focus: Connecting rural communities to our network in the UK

We are bringing high-quality 3G voice and data services to 100 rural communities in the UK, from Devon to the Shetland Isles, with unreliable or non-existent mobile coverage.

Launched in July 2014, our Rural Open Sure Signal programme is installing innovative sure signal technology, known as femtocells, in village halls, shops and homes to deliver widespread mobile coverage to these rural communities for the first time.

The first of these communities is already benefiting from this service as can be seen in the productivity of local, rural businesses, as well as the improvements to livelihoods within the communities. Find out how the Rural Open Sure Signal has benefitted businesses.

Expanding rural coverage in this way is part of our wider commitment to provide voice services to at least 90% of the UK by the end of 2017, as required by the UK regulator Ofcom.

Find out more about Rural Open Sure Signal.

Responsible network deployment

Our Site Implementation Guidelines, along with our standards on RF and health and safety, set consistent standards for all our markets in five key areas: legal compliance, environmental impact, RF emissions, site planning and selection, and health and safety. Accompanying guidelines demonstrate best practice and help each market adapt the Group guidelines and standards to local needs.

The standards and guidelines also apply to our contractors and their sub-contractors, who carry out much of the work involved in network deployment – from the planning and acquisition of sites to the construction and maintenance of base stations. Contractor compliance is a priority and we have an audit programme in place to monitor contractors’ performance in the key area of health and safety. See Health and safety.

When selecting base station sites, we always aim to comply with local planning regulations. In some markets, complex local and national planning regulations (sometimes conflicting) mean it can take up to 18 months to obtain local permits for individual sites. However, Vodafone’s national operator licences often require coverage to be expanded sooner. As a result, some base stations may be built before all permissions are obtained, due to the lengthy planning processes (see table below on violations of planning regulations). All our base station sites are designed and built to comply with international and local safety guidelines regardless of whether they are licensed as part of local or regional planning regimes.

In many countries we have signed up to recognised national codes of conduct for responsible network deployment. These codes are often in partnership with other service providers, local authorities, governments and consumer associations.

Base stations and planning regulations

  2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
Total number of base station sites 248,000 263,400 283,000
Number of violations of planning regulations in relation to masts/base station sites1 239 182 143

Notes:

  1. The majority of these cases relate to base stations being moved or not built due to planning restrictions.

Community consultation

We want to roll out our network quickly, but community consultation is vital and can take time. We aim to balance technical considerations with community concerns, which can conflict. For example, higher masts can sometimes improve coverage but can also have greater visual impact.

Clear communication is key to alleviating concerns by keeping communities informed of plans. Training and information packs aim to help employees respond to questions clearly and openly.

We tailor our communications and consultations in each market depending on local regulations and public attitudes – what is acceptable in one country may not be in others. When people do raise objections to planned base stations, we listen and accommodate their views as far as possible. The table shows some of the main factors we consider when deciding where to put our base stations.

Community considerations Technical considerations
  • Public concern relating to schools, hospitals, nature reserves and other such areas
  • Visual impact on the landscape
  • Compliance with local planning regulations
  • Minimal disturbance to the community
  • Access to information
  • Consultations
  • Compliance with local RF field strength guidelines
  • Good coverage, capacity and improved services for customers
  • Strong and safe construction
  • Efficient rollout
  • Appropriate positioning to connect to the network
  • Easy access and maintenance
  • Access to power supply

Reducing visual impact

We use a range of base station designs to ensure we can choose the most suitable for each situation and blend in with the local environment. Each base station consists of antennas that emit and receive RF signals, a supporting structure and a cabinet to house network equipment.

Some are purpose built, some use masts shared with other operators and some are placed on existing structures such as rooftops or lamp posts. Some local communities prefer a bespoke design such as a tree mast to disguise the base station, while other communities prefer a discreetly sited standard design.

Examples of best practice for reducing visual impact are shared among local markets through internal conferences and our intranet. These include:

  • sharing sites with other mobile phone operators
  • using existing structures to support antennas and house equipment where possible
  • designing masts to blend into the surrounding street furniture, for example by looking like street lamps or flagpoles, or being built into advertising billboards
  • constructing equipment cabinets from materials that match the environment or painting them to blend in
  • putting masts in places where they do not intrude unnecessarily on the view
  • ensuring small cell base stations meet our design criteria and fulfil local council requirements related to weight, size and appearance.

Network sharing

Across the Group, 70% of our base station sites are shared with other networks. By cooperating with other operators to share sites, we can accelerate the deployment of our network, limit the total number of sites required to provide coverage and cut costs by around 20%. Energy use and environmental impacts are reduced, making site sharing an important element of our strategy to improve network efficiency (see Minimising our carbon footprint). In Europe, the EU Commission sees network sharing as a means to support the fast deployment of (new) mobile networks.

Sharing sites relieves pressure on planning authorities because there are fewer sites to review and helps us respond to communities’ desire to reduce the need for additional structures in their area. However, we must also take into consideration that shared sites can raise other concerns because they are often larger and therefore more noticeable.

The majority of our network sharing is ’passive’ – sharing site and infrastructure such as masts or poles and air conditioning units (see diagram). ’Active’ network sharing arrangements – where radio equipment is also shared – can be much more difficult to agree due to technical issues and the need to establish a high level of trust between competitor operators. In some cases, licence agreements also require separate radio equipment to preserve full competition between operators.

Despite these challenges, we now have active network sharing agreements in Greece, Romania, Spain and the UK. We have established a joint venture in Greece, VICTUS Networks, to manage networks for both Vodafone and Wind Hellas including sharing parts of our 2G and 3G networks. In March 2014, we also committed to working with seven other major mobile operator groups on network sharing initiatives that will provide internet, mobile broadband access and affordable mobile services to unserved rural communities across Africa and the Middle East.

There are three types of network sharing:

Passive sharing

The site and mast are shared but each operator maintains its own network equipment.

 

Active sharing

All infrastructure is shared at a certain site, including the mast and network equipment.

 

Regional roaming

Individual base station sites are maintained by individual operators with an agreement to use each other’s sites in different regions, expanding the coverage of each operator’s network without the need for more base stations.