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Can private 5G take centre stage during festival season?

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Can private 5G take centre stage during festival season?Music festivals are proving themselves to be a major use case for dedicated private networks. How can private 5G enhance the festival experience, and how are festivals across the world already taking advantage of the tech?

After a couple of years lying dormant, festival season is well and truly back in full swing this year.

So far this summer, you’ll likely already have had your social media feeds clogged with festival pictures and videos from friends and family, and with many more likely to come.

If the prospect of spending festival time on your phone doesn’t sound appealing, consider that 62% of respondents to a recent giffgaff survey believe that mobile phones improve their festival experience.

The overwhelming majority – 87% of respondents – reported using their phones sensibly to communicate with other guests at festivals, while 47% use them to browse social media, 27% to use the festival’s official app, 25% to check the news, and 9% to check their emails.

For mobile services, festivals pose a unique triple threat; often based in remote, rural locations, they massively increase the number of connections and volumes of data generated where there just isn’t any infrastructure to adequately respond, choking connections at a time when customers are trying to locate fellow guests or let those not in attendance know that they are having the time of their lives.

As the UK’s premier summer festival, Glastonbury leads the pack in keeping guests connected, having partnered with EE for a seventh year to turn the 900-acre Worthy Farm site into a data hotbed for the festival’s 200,000 attendees.

In 2017, 54TB of mobile data was used over the long weekend by guests. For 2019, 103.6TB was used over that festival weekend in total, 47% more than anticipated. This year, EE predicted more than 200TB of traffic, an astounding 93% increase on 2019.

To meet these exceptional demands for connectivity, EE set up seven temporary masts, adding to the two permanent sites it previously installed at the venue. EE also released a free official Glastonbury app, including live updates, maps, personalised line-ups, and streaming functionality via an integration with BBC iPlayer, a dedicated recharge tent with wireless and USB C charging stations, and, naturally, a Wi-Fi-powered rooster providing public connectivity and announcements as to when headline acts were starting on the Pyramid Stage.

These successes are a far cry from 2021’s virtual Glastonbury stream, delivered by online events producer Driift Live, which was beset by technical faults preventing those who had paid the £20 fee from watching and forcing organisers to make this supposedly exclusive stream free-to-watch.

EE first announced plans to trial a private mobile network at the festival in 2019, installing five temporary masts across the site, supporting all network types from 2G to 5G. This switch-on got caught up in a battle between Glastonbury Town Council and a group of “activists and spiritual healers”, with the former accusing the latter of “hijacking” a report into the safety of 5G. The council adopted a precautionary principle, leading four experts from the advisory committee to resign, with one branding it a “clueless pantomime.”

Seemingly determined to maintain Glastonbury’s hippy credentials, one committee member advised the council to go a step further and switch off all local Wi-Fi connections, while another recommended a £339 5GBioShield as a “helpful” device to protect against harm; upon further inspection, this was found to be an ordinary USB stick.

Hocus pocus aside, EE’s successes are relatively unique in the world of connecting festivals. This year’s Sweden Rock was beset by connectivity problems [in Swedish], with three out of four mobile operators struggling with coverage. Though operator Three had a dedicated 5G mast set up in the area and managed to deliver messaging and data services to its users, fellow MNOs Tele2, Telia and Telenor all struggled.

But at least they tried; despite US Cellular sponsoring a stage at the festival, this year’s Summerfest in Milwaukee had no dedicated private network provided by them, or any other operator.

Meanwhile, EE is continuing to deliver high-speed access to festivalgoers, having partnered with Wembley Stadium to improve coverage for its slate of summer concerts, including Capital FM’s Summertime Ball in June, where guests created the biggest “mobile data event” on Wembley's network, uploading over 3,000GB and downloading over 3,500GB of data.

Festivals provide a powerful, unique use case for private 5G networks, necessitating quick, temporary deployments to serve an intense stream of data. Going one step further though, they could power innovative performances and immersive guest experiences.

For example, Digital Catapult’s 5G Festival this year saw a world-first performance take place, with the bands and audiences split between three different venues in London and Brighton, the locations of Digital Catapult’s 5G testbeds, linked by Virgin Media O2’s public 5G network.

Meanwhile, at Mighty Hoopla Festival in London, Vodafone demonstrated a 5G-enabled haptic feedback suit to allow deaf guests to physically experience the sounds of the show and the excitement of the audience.

Having to deal with rising production costs and the lingering effects of COVID, the festival market is becoming increasingly competitive as the pool of potential guests is squeezed by availability and costs. Mobile private networks provide a great opportunity for CSPs to add value to the festival proposition by offering premium connectivity to event organisers to pass on a better experience to their guests.

So whether its raucous heavy metal, throwback pop or intimate jazz festivals, advanced connectivity and immersive technologies can prove to be powerful differentiators, potentially even opening up these experiences for stay-at-home fans.

Update [18/08/22]: Read more here about how the BBC harnessed private 5G to power their coverage of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

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Adam Hughes


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