Virgin Media sets up 'smart poles' next to cabinets to boost mobile network capacity

Not the best looking street furniture in town

UK telco Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) says it can boost mobile services by sticking small cells on top of poles linked to its on-street fiber network cabinets.

Trials of the "smart poles" with a miniature 4G or 5G mobile cell base station on top were deemed a success by the broadband provider, which claims these can be deployed speedily to help to boost mobile coverage in local areas across Britain.

VMO2 says it already has around 25,000 cabinets in place on streets up and down the island nation, which can provide power and backhaul connectivity for a smart pole. The latter can be installed in a matter of hours and don’t require planning permission, according to the company.

The news comes mere days after Britain’s Digital Infrastructure Minister asked all telecoms operators to stop deploying new telegraph poles and to share existing ones wherever possible.

Digital Infrastructure minister Julia Lopez said new poles should only be installed "after ensuring that appropriate community engagement has taken place."

virgin media

One of the new smart poles, color matched with the street cabinet beside it Pic: Virgin Media

We asked VMO2 if it intended to provide "appropriate community engagement," even if there is no official need for planning permission.

The company told The Register it always works "closely with Local Authorities before installing new infrastructure and notify residents ahead of works taking place. We have dedicated teams to support communities when we're building new infrastructure."

So that's alright then.

We also asked if other mobile operators would be able to expand their network coverage this way, or if it was going to be the sole preserve of the O2 network, with which Virgin Media merged in 2021. VM confirmed that for the trials, "the network was only available to the O2 network."

VMO2 says the trial involved smart poles being installed beside the operator's existing fiber network cabinets. It claims the poles are much smaller than traditional mobile phone masts and can be installed in less than a day, housing small cell tech to boost mobile coverage in busy areas.

The electricity for each smart pole is supplied by Virgin Media's fiber network rather than a traditional power connection. VM02 told us this is thanks to "digital electricity" technology, which is a prime example of marketing nonsense. All this appears to mean is that the smart pole is connected to a street cabinet for both power and a data connection to the network.

"For our trials, we've used 'Hybrid Cables.' These are cables that include copper cores for the Volt-Server power transmission as well as fibres for connectivity. This means we can deploy one cable and have the ability to commission power and fibre connectivity. The touch-safe feature of the Volt-Server power distribution platform in combination with hybrid cables means that power can be taken from a cabinet and distributed through telecom duct or over poles."

VMO2 also claims that smart city infrastructure, including electric vehicle chargers, could be connected to smart poles in future.

As for when you'll see the smart poles on the ground, VMO2 is "looking to expand it later this year in a limited capacity."

Just last week a group of network providers called on the government to take steps to protect against a growing number of physical attacks on network infrastructure, some of which have been blamed on 5G protesters. ®

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