Keeping Britain mobile during lockdown

by Brendan O’Reilly, CTO, O2

Mobile connectivity has been a key pillar of the UK economy for decades, but in recent weeks we’ve seen its value more starkly than ever as we all stay at home to beat coronavirus.

Our new normal involves remote working en masse, socialising on apps like House Party and Zoom, and a huge surge in the consumption of entertainment from the likes of Disney+. At the same time, we’ve also seen the highest amount of voice traffic ever carried on our network, and on average conversations are lasting 35% longer, all of which increases the pressure on our network.

Set against this context, it is more important than ever that our teams can work on maintaining and upgrading our network infrastructure.

My view is that our engineers are heroes – out there every day working hard so that mobile can continue to move Britain, keeping businesses running and families in touch with each other. But appallingly, in recent days we have seen evidence of network engineers being abused whilst going about their work and masts attacked. People are risking their own lives, along with others, if they attack and destroy masts. It’s vital to note that it’s not necessarily 5G masts being destroyed, they are 3G and 4G masts, which are keeping the country connected, vulnerable people in touch with loved ones and allowing emergency services to respond to those in need. This includes the abuse of engineers working on a mast that serves the Nightingale hospital in East London, so this cannot be allowed to continue.

Our engineers are absolutely crucial to staying connected during the lockdown. To ensure the public appreciates this, we have provided engineers with signs to display in their vans whilst they work, indicating their status as key workers and highlighting the essential nature of their task in hand.

We don’t yet know how long lockdown will last, but we are committed to ensuring our network performs strongly for its entirety and beyond. We continue to invest £2m in the network every day, and are ramping up our work on improving its capability. We have already doubled the capacity of our voice network, including expanding the link into BT / EE and Vodafone Carrier services considerably and we are continuing to look at ways to increase the capacity and resilience of our network. We also have a list of priority sites around the country, including hospitals, government facilities, and food logistics sites that we are monitoring carefully to ensure connectivity is maintained.

We’re also putting our network at the service of other front-line workers, from the doctors and nurses in our NHS to key food logistics and government workers. We’re continuing to support them through initiatives such as working with the NHS Trusts to understand requirements for the Nightingale hospitals, including installing temporary solutions at NHS Nightingale at the ExCeL and in Harrogate, to ensure our current network coverage and capacity is sufficient for their needs.

We are also increasing the data and call capacity to the maximum available for a number of Blue Light services, including increasing the network capacity on 500 in-building priority sites (femto cells) such as hospitals, but our responsibility doesn’t stop with the network as we have also made The O2 arena available as an NHS training facility. The staff trained will go on to work at the NHS Nightingale field hospital at ExCeL London.

I hope this goes some way to demonstrating how important our network engineers are at this critical time and I hope you’ll all join me in thanking them for their herculean efforts. We’ll continue to stand by our staff, who are working harder than ever to keep the country moving, ensuring our network is as resilient as possible and keeping everyone connected.

We are all relying on our mobile networks at this time of crisis, and our mobile networks are relying on the public to support on engineers when they’re hard at work. Now, more than ever, we’re all in this together.