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Keeping the crowd connected: how have the mobile networks fared at this year’s biggest live events?


As 2023’s busy summer events calendar continues, how are the major mobile networks coping with the increasing demand for connectivity? Adam Hughes tested the signal at Glastonbury Festival (and Eurovision) – was it Still Standing, or like a Candle in the Wind?

You may grumble at the sight of hundreds of phones held aloft during concerts, but more and more people are determined to drag any live concert, sporting fixture or art show into the online realm, as every major public event brings an enormous surge of network traffic. According to BT, in May, the Coronation of Charles III and Eurovision contributed to a 10% increase in nationwide mobile traffic.

Nowhere is this increase felt more than at venues themselves, where tens or even hundreds of thousands of mobile users are trying to locate fellow guests, access official apps or beam photos and videos to social media.
Last year, I wrote about EE’s connectivity efforts at Glastonbury Festival. This year, I thought I’d try it out myself; as someone who struggles for a signal at any event with more than a few dozen guests, my phone (on Sky Mobile) would be the perfect stress-test for this record-breaking year.

So, I donned my camping gear and a signature Cerillion cap and headed to Worthy Farm.

Tent revival

62% of festivalgoers say that phones enhance their festival experience, but with so many guests all fighting for access, any cluster of cell sites will inevitably become logjammed, especially when handling the combined traffic of only a few thousand people for the remaining 360 days of the year.

Vodafone, who signed a new multi-year agreement to act as official connectivity partner, reported that 2023 saw 169 terabytes of data used on its network alone, up 99% on last year.

Customers on the official connectivity partner’s network tend to have the best experience; EE were broadly the best previously, but their partnership ended last year. The difference in signal quality is stark; as one guest told Somerset Live, “Signal is non-existent at peak times unless you’re on Vodafone.”

EE boasts the most permanent masts in the area, followed by Vodafone, then O2 and Three jointly.  To meet the exceptional demand at the festival, they and other major MNOs set up “Cells on Wheels” to support the extra load from the event’s 200,000+ guests.

Despite their partnership ending, EE still had seven temporary masts this year. In fact, Glastonbury is just one of many places that EE has deployed temporary masts to meet the “huge surge in seasonal demand.”

They cite the success of temporary mast deployments at Eurovision back in May, which handled over 20TB of data traffic in the week before the final. As another event I was in the vicinity for, I can report it didn’t make much difference – my signal anywhere within a few square kilometres of the contest scored a nul points from me!

Long drops

As my coach approached the campsite on the Wednesday before Glastonbury started, my signal immediately dropped as traffic around me slowed to a crawl. Off the coach on the outskirts of the campsite by the carparks and drop-off areas, signal was non-existent for everyone – not such a problem then, but getting picked up later would prove a struggle.

Once through the ticket gates and into the campsite, a fellow camper on Vodafone saw his signal dramatically rocket, man, where it remained consistently for the whole festival. Even this wasn’t perfect though; when using geolocation app what3words, his location could often be off by several kilometres at a time!

In contrast, for my friends on O2 and myself on Sky Mobile (running on O2’s network) reception was jarringly patchy – near-perfect in places, but largely struggling. Mornings and nights at my tent were hopeless, but during the afternoon when most campers were away, my signal fared better. I could even occasionally send and receive messages (largely old-fashioned SMS, being the most reliable format) at the Pyramid Stage during less busy acts.

Given my experience at Eurovision though, I can safely say that inconsistent signal is better than no signal at all.

Connect & Charge

By Saturday, I was faced with low battery in my portable charger too, giving me good reason to visit Vodafone’s Connect & Charge site. Located at the heart of the campsite, this “dystopian” (in the words of one friend) red unit, standing distinctly against the circus tents and rustic yurts, invited guests to charge their devices and get a much-needed break from the heat in its airy lounge.

Ushered in by a dangerously enthusiastic steward outside – was he feeling recharged himself by the sounds of the nearby Glade stage’s eclectic grooves, or just feeling the heatstroke? I didn’t want to hang around long enough to find out, but it turns out I’d have no choice, stood by a small plinth strewn with variously sized USB cables until my charger was at full battery. I found this arrangement perplexing – wouldn’t a secure locker system (as per MWC Barcelona) work much better than giving up hours of your precious time to hover around your device?

Was I lured into a cunning trap where staff (volunteers?) could upsell me on a free try-before-you-buy SIM card, or a Vodafone-branded portable charger for £25? If so, they didn’t try very hard, but I buckled and bought a charger anyway. I couldn’t sacrifice any more of my afternoon, even for precious charge – Manic Street Preachers were about to begin!

Levelling the field

No two experiences are the same, but that only goes to highlight the imperfections of temporary networks. If the prevalence of luxury glamping tents and celebrity-packed VIP areas hadn’t already tipped you off, Glastonbury is an event of haves and have-less-ofs – the same doesn’t have to be true of connectivity.

An open access network arrangement between providers, pooling their infrastructure to ensure greater coverage across the rolling green hills would suit guests far better than the ever-shifting connectivity partnership agreements, and gambling on whether your network has the best signal that year. This might not sit well with the sponsors, who presumably think there's a good ROI from paying to be known as the official connectivity partner – but if all networks get to put up temporary cells, how financially effective is sponsorship of these festivals anyway?

It is understandable that telcos should want to partner with festivals to create organic live experiences – rather than just providing connectivity, being equally part of the culture. But if festivals want to offer immersive digital experiences and seamless online content to enhance the guest experience, those who can’t even get a few bars of signal to locate their fellow campers will feel very hard done by.

When it comes to mission-critical infrastructure, your BSS/OSS should be no exception. Talk to Cerillion now to find out how our pre-integrated product suite can help you deliver an always-on service.

About the author

Adam Hughes


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