Virgin Media O2's Smart Pole Trial: A Spark for the Future of Mobile Infrastructure?

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By Sam Bowling | 2Q 2024 | IN-7320

Virgin Media O2 recently concluded a trial of smart poles across several locations within the United Kingdom. Its innovative solution leverages existing fiber infrastructure and emerging technologies as it looks to install small cell sites to boost capacity in urban areas. Additionally, these smart poles can be used to hit green energy targets and expand its revenue streams by having the potential to house Electric Vehicle (EV) chargers. However, several key questions remain: what are the broader implications of this trial for the mobile network infrastructure industry, and what steps can be taken to build upon Virgin Media O2’s initiative?

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Smart Poles for a Smarter Network


Virgin Media O2’s announcement that it has concluded a trial of smart poles comes at a welcome time for the U.K. industry following statements from Britain’s Data and Digital Infrastructure Minister that all telco operators should stop deploying new telegraph poles and share existing ones where possible. Claiming that its initial trial of deploying these poles was a success, Virgin Media O2 has laid out plans to expand its initial trial network later this year in a limited capacity. During the trial, these smart poles were equipped with 4G and 5G small cell technology alongside their existing fiber network cabinets.

These small cells function as miniaturized base stations, boosting mobile signal strength and capacity in specific areas. However, the key differentiator from any preceding trials lies in their power source: Virgin Media O2 used its extensive fiber network of 25,000 street cabinets to deliver "digital electricity" to the smart poles, eliminating the need for a separate backhaul connection or dedicated electricity supply. This seamless integration of existing infrastructure with small cell technologies, as well as the smaller size compared to traditional mobile masts, means that no planning permission is required to install them, streamlining the deployment process and reducing costs associated with regulatory hurdles.

Industry Impact: A Promising Step, Not a Silver Bullet


Through its trial, Virgin Media O2 attempted to provide an alternative to traditional macro towers within urban environments, believing that the small cell technology within its smart poles is better suited to handling the ever-growing data consumption within cities. Virgin Media O2 believes that the lower latency and higher capacity of its smart poles will be crucial in developing applications such as the Internet of Everything (IoE), Virtual Reality (VR), and High-Definition (HD) video streaming. Despite the initial trials being exclusive to O2 and specific locations in the United Kingdom, the underlying concept presents some significant benefits for the wider Mobile Network Operator (MNO) industry:

  • Faster and Cheaper Network Densification: MNOs face a constant battle in expanding their coverage and capacity in dense urban areas. Traditional methods involve building new cell towers, which can be expensive, time-consuming due to permitting processes, and visually disruptive. Smart poles allow MNOs to not only reduce their Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) through simplified installation processes, but to also see a quicker Return on Investment (ROI) through faster network rollouts.
  • Leveraging Existing Infrastructure: By utilizing existing assets for smart pole deployments, operators can eliminate the need for duplicate infrastructure investments, streamlining the process and potentially reducing costs.
  • Smart City Potential: Virgin Media O2 also claims that smart city infrastructure, including Electric Vehicle (EV) chargers, could be integrated into smart poles. If implemented, these poles could be used by MNOs to not only expand their revenue stream by further monetizing their network, but to also aid in building toward a more sustainable future.

While smart poles offer promising advancements for mobile network infrastructure, several key hurdles could hinder widespread adoption. The most critical challenge lies in the limited availability of high-bandwidth fiber backhaul in many regions. This lack of fiber infrastructure could exacerbate existing digital divides, as smart poles heavily rely on this technology for efficient data transmission. Western Europe, with its more developed fiber infrastructure, appears to be in the best position for initial deployment. Additionally, the current network infrastructure may struggle to handle the additional load generated by smart poles. Without network upgrades, this could lead to performance bottlenecks, outages, and, ultimately, a negative impact on overall network performance.

Learning from the Success of Virgin Media O2's Trial


The reliance of smart poles on an already established high-bandwidth fiber network critically narrows down the deployable market size, potentially limiting the overall ROI for large-scale vendor Research and Development (R&D) efforts. Consequently, smart poles are unlikely to be the sole driver of future mobile network infrastructure. However, dismissing them entirely would be shortsighted. Smart poles offer a valuable stepping stone toward network densification, particularly in areas with established fiber infrastructure. Additionally, they serve as a crucial testbed for novel small cell technologies. Learnings gleaned from smart pole deployments can be broadly applied to future network solutions that transcend geographical limitations. Vendors and operators alike that recognize this potential and invest strategically can be well-positioned to capitalize on future advancements in mobile network technology, with the following actionable insights aiding them in this goal:

  • Pilot Programs: Despite the significant long-term benefits of smart poles in terms of energy efficiency, their initial costs might be higher due to sourcing renewable and recyclable materials. Operators should pursue case studies of small-scale deployments with vendors set to test and refine the technology, gather real-world data on performance and user experience, and identify any ROI—all critical data to inform any future large-scale deployment.
  • Standardization Efforts: MNOs should collaborate with industry bodies in standardizing smart pole designs, as well as highlighting the potential benefits of this technology for network expansion and national connectivity goals to help accelerate smart pole deployment. This also ensures compatibility with different network equipment and avoids vendor lock-in for MNOs.
  • Collaboration Is Crucial: Vendor partnerships with MNOs and utility companies for infrastructure sharing and joint development are essential for wider adoption. By expanding the potential market, vendors can sell to individual MNOs, catering to a wider customer base with potentially larger contracts. Additionally, vendors can save on CAPEX by using the existing infrastructure expertise of utility companies that can handle pole installation and maintenance.


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