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Home / Features / How do phone networks actually work at events like Glastonbury?

How do phone networks actually work at events like Glastonbury?

For every large event, stacks of temporary masks appear - but what’s involved?

Glastonbury

How do you go about setting up a mobile phone network at an event like Glastonbury? The Somerset, UK festival is a five-day event and the on-site network needs to be fully functional and reliable across the event but then completely removed in the days after.

But this isn’t a problem unique to Glastonbury. Mobile networks often set up temporary masts for special events – indeed, last summer Vodafone covered over 70 special events including the Coronation, Royal Ascot and Wimbledon. Indeed, the networks says that its customers used 80% more 5G data in 2023 compared to 2022 across all these events.

Vodafone is the official connectivity partner of Glastonbury and last year rolled out nine masts around the site to provide full 4G and 5G coverage (5G first arrived at Glastonbury back in 2019 when EE provided the official network). This year there will be 10 of its masts around the site. Vodafone also supports the vast site’s general connectivity with around 2,500 temporary SIMs given out to bar operators, emergency services and so on.

At Glastonbury, Vodafone reckons there will be a huge 30 percent uplift in data usage this year to around 215 terabytes. That’s equivalent to 69,000 hours of HD video streaming or uploading 61 million Instagram photo posts. With 200,000 visitors, that’s around a gigabyte per person. Last year, 169 terabytes of data was used in total, including 450GB during Elton John’s two-hour headline set.

Notably, Vodafone said at the time that this was 99% more data than used in 2022 and it’s no wonder it expects the data usage to skyrocket – it is offering all festival goers 50GB of data for 7 days through an eSIM (check out the Glastonbury app) , so that will also lead to an increase in use.

The planning of the network for each event is quite different – for example where Glastonbury has 10 masts this year, Wimbledon gets just one as it is quite compact. The masts are affectionately known as COWs, or “cells on wheels” as they’re basically a trailer what comes with a few engineers in tow. They need power and data links – as well as as a good location. They take a minimum of day to set up, though it can often be two or three and they need to be monitored as they’re working to ensure that they work optimally.

That’s a challenge – especially at events with dynamic locations like Glastonbury. Engineers can look at previous patterns, but what if there’s a new stage or a secret set that brings vast unplanned for crowds? So there’s ongoing work that needs to be done. Vodafone’s head of network deployment Frederic Sundin explained before Glastonbury last year: “You have stages in the way, depending on where the special event is, or it can be hilly, it can be trees. That can block the signal. And you need to predict where the crowds will be, because they move around.”

Vodafone network Glastonbury 2023
A temporary mast at Glastonbury 2023

There are a lot of logistical challenges with rolling out the masts – from getting power to the COW, to the transportation of major hardware down country lanes to access from landowners. In terms of power, this is provided by diesel generators if it can’t come from elsewhere. Sometimes short-range microwave links are used to link them to more accessible locations and then onto fibre optic links. However, the microwave links pose their own challenges as they need to have line-of-sight with the next mast along the chain. That can be a challenge if space is an issue (space isn’t an issue at Glastonbury).

Vodafone’s 10 masts compares to nine from EE, eight from Virgin Media O2 and six from Three according to analyst CCS Insight. Interestingly, the analysts say that traders at music festivals are increasingly turning to satellite solutions to bring connectivity in such busy locations – with Starlink being the obvious example. CCS also says that Vodafone has a trial of what is called a 5G network slice at Glastonbury, where there’s dedicated network access separate from the public network – that’s something which we’ll see a lot more of at such populated events in the coming years.

Profile image of Dan Grabham Dan Grabham Editor-in-Chief

About

Dan is Editor-in-chief of Stuff, working across the magazine and the Stuff.tv website.  Our Editor-in-Chief is a regular at tech shows such as CES in Las Vegas, IFA in Berlin and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona as well as at other launches and events. He has been a CES Innovation Awards judge. Dan is completely platform agnostic and very at home using and writing about Windows, macOS, Android and iOS/iPadOS plus lots and lots of gadgets including audio and smart home gear, laptops and smartphones. He's also been interviewed and quoted in a wide variety of places including The Sun, BBC World Service, BBC News Online, BBC Radio 5Live, BBC Radio 4, Sky News Radio and BBC Local Radio.

Areas of expertise

Computing, mobile, audio, smart home