Lions to share Trafalgar Square with small-cell testbed

21 September 2018 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Trafalgar Square in London is to be the site of a trial of small cells by the local authority, which plans to roll the service out across all of its territory.

Westminster City Council, one of 32 boroughs covering London, has appointed Ontix, a new, private equity-backed company, to buy dark fibre from existing carriers to connect its lamp posts.

Individual carriers will then be able to put their own small cells on the lamp posts, Antony Tomlinson, Ontix’s CEO, told Capacity.

The pilot will start by November in Trafalgar Square – currently the site of an art installation sponsored by Google, featuring a bright red lion that roars poetry. Ontix will then continue the roll out across Westminster’s territory, which ranges from London Zoo in the north to Victoria Station in the south.

“The small cells will be the responsibility of the mobile operators,” said Tomlinson. “We don’t provide the cells but will offer infrastructure as a service as a turnkey solution.” The fibre will be able to connect cells from more than one provider, “subject to the load-bearing of the lamp post”.

Tomlinson is a former executive with CTIL, the joint Telefónica/Vodafone mobile tower operation in the UK.

Westminster City Council said the small cells would help fill coverage holes and provide “faster connectivity and higher capacity to mobile operators and other wireless network operators”.

David Harvey, the city council’s cabinet member for economic development education and community, said: “This new micro-technology will finally relegate not ‘not-spots’ to the digital dustbin of history and Westminster will now embody the UK’s ambition to become a world leader in 5G.”

Ontix has a 10-year deal with the council, and it will also build a high capacity, neutral-host metro network to deliver 5G-ready connectivity for all operators. Ontix will use microwave as well as fibre, said Tomlinson. Ontix will be using the trial to test out the installation process, “which will often by done by the council’s own contractor”, and which may use different fibre vendors, depending on location. The company wants “to reduce the lead time” for installations “to weeks rather than months”. Small cells have sometimes taken as long to install as macro cells, Tomlinson noted.

“We are keen to build on a dark fibre base – to provide a high-capacity solution that is future-proof. We will light up the fibre.”

Ontix is “well advanced” with planning the Trafalgar Square trial, said Tomlinson, “but the rollout is driven by the operators. We will be finding out where they want to go.”

London has 31 other boroughs – as well as a separate authority for the City of London, the financial district – and Ontix is looking at them too, said Tomlinson: no names yet, though, he added.