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Vodafone UK Warn Over Costs of Adding Battery Backup to Mobile Sites

Tuesday, Jan 16th, 2024 (9:48 am) - Score 6,560
Vodafone OpenRAN Mast in Rural UK Area

Mobile operator Vodafone UK has today highlighted the potentially huge cost challenges involved with adding backup power (batteries etc.) to their network of 12,000+ mast sites across the country, which could be one of the possible outcomes from Ofcom’s new probe into the issue of inadequate power backup.

According to Ofcom’s probe (here), the amount of battery backup deployed across mobile Radio Access Network (RAN) sites varies by operator (i.e. Vodafone, EE (BT), O2 (Virgin Media) and Three UK), both in terms of the proportion of cell sites that are backed up and for how long.

However, the impact of recent winter storms (i.e. disrupting mobile connectivity due to power loss) and the migration away from traditional (PSTN) landline phones (newer IP / digital-based phones can also go down during power outages, without local battery backup), helps to underline that consumers are placing greater importance upon the dependability of their mobile phones and network, such as for emergency calls.

The regulator’s existing guidance doesn’t yet include measures relating to the provision of additional power backup at mobile sites, but mobile operators are aware that the very fact Ofcom are even seeking feedback on the issue is an indication that this may change. Vodafone suggests the regulator wants operators to ensure their “network can function for as long as possible without being connected to the National Grid“, thus avoiding a situation “where huge numbers of people would also have to make do without connectivity.”

Vodafone’s Concerns and Proposal

The most obvious challenge in all this is one of cost. Power storage solutions, particularly for major network sites, need to be very durable and tend to be quite expensive to both add and maintain (i.e. the cost of ongoing maintenance / replacements and any extra engineer training etc.). So, to the obvious question this raises, who pays?

Nicki Lyons, Vodafone UK’s Chief Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Officer, said:

“The Mobile Network Operators cannot be asked to shoulder this financial burden alone. Building redundancy into every element of the network would be another significant investment, in addition to the 5G and full fibre ambitions that we share with Government.

Vodafone is proposing a shared funding model. The Mobile Network Operators would of course be contributors, but so would the Government, the utility companies that we pay to provide secure and reliable energy services, and the cloud companies that have benefitted significantly from the mass adoption of mobile and the countrywide rollout of networks, but have not contributed financially in any material manner. The shared funding model would be holistic, avoiding any disproportionate impact on any one industry or company.

The Australian Government has taken an interesting approach. By launching the Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters (STAND) programme, Mobile Network Operators were able to apply for grants of up to $7.7 million to deliver enhancements and improved resilience to telecommunications facilities in regional and remote communities affected by natural disasters.

This stands in stark contrast to Japan where Mobile Network Operators bear sole financial responsibility for network energy resilience. However, the average amount that Japanese customers pay each month for mobile contracts in 2022 was roughly £27. In comparison, Vodafone customers in the UK paid an average of £14.20 a month – almost half as much.”

Vodafone are right to highlight the issue of cost, and the idea of a shared funding model is definitely one that should be fully explored. On the other hand, it’s notable that the operator’s shared funding proposal makes no direct mention of customers potentially needing to face higher bills, which we think is likely to be an understandable and inevitable reality (i.e. when the costs of service provision rise, then so to your bills).

The closest we get to this is a dangerously oversimplified comparison with pricing in Japan. But country-to-country comparisons are notoriously tricky and should always be taken with a big pinch of salt, as there can be significant additional differences between economies, competition and market developments, all of which go into influencing end-user pricing. Not to mention differences between individual operators and package features. Suffice to say, it’s a minefield that’s best avoided, unless you’re willing to do it properly, which a single paragraph from Vodafone does not achieve.

Speaking of which, Japanese operator Rakuten Mobile offers an unlimited data plan that, at today’s rates, costs the equivalent of £17.69 per month (3,278 yen inc. TAX), although some fair use limitations may apply to speeds. This also includes all the usual free domestic calls etc. So in Japan, flexible and affordable mobile packages do exist, regardless of battery provision rules.

The operator also manages to questionably include “cloud companies” into their cost sharing proposal, albeit without defining precisely what they mean. But the language they use here reminds us of the many Net Neutrality debates over the years, where major mobile and broadband ISPs have demanded that internet content providers (e.g. Netflix, websites, cloud / content providers etc.) pay them for the traffic they carry.

However, we think it’s always worth remembering that demand for broadband and mobile internet services would not exist without attractive internet content. Some ISPs may complain that the increase in related data usage from these services and others raises their costs, but that is a cost of doing business and is usually reflected in the prices we all pay as end-users. Equally, the internet and ever faster connections wouldn’t be worth using if attractive online content and services didn’t exist.

At the end of the day, there’s still a cost challenge to solve here and, no matter where those costs end up falling, consumers will often still end up paying for it at some point along the chain. Suffice to say, it’ll be interesting to see how much of a cost impact the operators actually anticipate, since at present we haven’t seen any hard figures from either Ofcom or the mobile operators. Much will also depend upon precisely what requirements Ofcom ends up setting and whether it will be applicable to all mast sites or only some. The debate is only just getting started.

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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22 Responses
  1. Avatar photo J says:

    What a pathetic company

    1. Avatar photo Bed says:

      £14 average monthly payment for VF customers?! Check their site, you can’t even get a 5G SIMO for that!

  2. Avatar photo Clive peters says:

    totally agree, the mobile providers are really chancing it by trying to milk content providers. consumers have already paid for the connection to the content provider, they’re trying to double charge

    1. Avatar photo Phil says:

      Exactly, the cloud service providers could also argue the same thing in that mobile phone companies have benefited due to people wanting faster connectivity to use cloud services on the move and so are okay paying ever more expensive premiums for mobile connectivity.

      Basically this comes down to OFCOM again, they should have been on the ball much earlier and insisted on more reliable mobile communications, if its done at the time of installing other infrastructure its much less expensive for the mobile companies, but they aren’t going to spend anything extra over and above what is required at the time. OFCOM, rather than just being concerned with how much money they can extract from mobile phone operators in auctions to buy frequency slots, should have had this sorted out long ago.

    2. Avatar photo SicOf says:

      And double tax, if the price increses then so does the government tax (vat) take – all at consumer and or tax payer cost .
      If the governemtn thinks that ‘mobiles’ are mandatory for public service provision/use then thay should be providing them to users, not piggybacking/ pirating the consumers individual (and should be private) equipment and bought service.
      What about those that do not have or want a ‘mobile phone’ and were talking about data consuming social media / tat junkie ones? As oposed to a real phone, just voice and sms (must resurrect my Nokia 6310i, battery lasted for 10 days.
      Not to mention the disparity of geographic service provision – do the minds of the great government or OfCom think that 5g will get to rural villages – or why they should pay ex/disprop orionate costs for inferior performance or value (consumer benifit protection forethought please for one OfCom) – or are they trying to herd all folks into urban areas for ease of infrastructure?

      UK infrastructure has been allowed to collapse into a (and further) shambles.

  3. Avatar photo Dassa says:

    Hi,

    A shared cost model would be fundamentally anti-competitive. Why should mobile operators get external funding for resilience but the likes of Openreach, Cityfibre, etc. etc. have to fund it themselves?

    1. Avatar photo SicOf says:

      Err because the g’ment are rather poor (delinquent) at stipulationg service conditions of the mobile licences bands they ‘sell’ off to mobile co bidders.
      Charge more for anything but essential data bandwidth, cull teh social media tat – tracey putting pictures of the latest manicure paint job etc. Forcing ‘services’ to only be available by ‘app’ ( just use ther real internet (ISP -‘broadband’), remembering ‘mobile’ is just a gateway to the real internet and should be for user convenience (they are paying for it) not ‘push’ marketing/spam and location tracking etc. (and can you really truse android google for real user privacy) ?

  4. Avatar photo Kevin says:

    Surely backup batteries should have been included from day one.. The much Vodafone has the cheek to charge people for their subpar services you’d think they would do it without complaining about the cost.

    1. Avatar photo RightSaidFred says:

      As nationally critical infrastructure, you’d have hoped so.

      Unfortunately, businesses will only do what they are forced to do (by their customers or by their regulators).

  5. Avatar photo Richard Branston says:

    I think VF are rightly highlighting a very real practical constraint.

    Given the energy required to sustain a street pole / pole of wonder or Macro site is substantial, adding battery backup would mean adding a module the size of a smart car to a street pole and modules the size of 1-2 large estate cars to every macro site. And that’s just to give 24 hours backup.

    Given there’s little / no space around PoWs and weight constraints would be an issue on roof mounted macro sites, the scope for battery backup is limited.

    Then add in the requirement for planning permission and the significant cost / time required to do that and it starts to look rather unrealistic.

    1. Avatar photo Jonathan says:

      Many mast sites would be better provisioned with natural gas powered generators connected to the mains gas network for indefinite backup in the event of a power cut in a much smaller physical footprint.

    2. Avatar photo Bed says:

      Yeah cheaper electricity too!

  6. Avatar photo Kiddo says:

    No Physical phone – battery back up is a must. I think most people given the option would accept a delayed rollout of 5g for this. So they need to go cry somewhere else.

  7. Avatar photo John Geddes says:

    I made a FOI request to Ofcom asking about mobile resilience, and in particular what mobile coverage there would be 5, 10, 15 mins (and so on) into an area-wide power outage. They said they don’t have info like that, and did not offer any other info to provide any reassurance. So as PSTN closes, and customers increasingly opt not to buy wired voice as an add-on, we are pushing emergency comms onto a much resilience platform.

    FOI link: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/backup_power_duration_for_mobile#describe_state_form_1

  8. Avatar photo lolfibre says:

    It is always someone else’s fault/problem.

    They chose to build without, it’ll cost more/be harder to add afterwards. They chose to compete on price rather than charge enough to do the job properly. They chose to be in the market and price others out,

    I don’t mind them not having battery but they should not be misselling it as a full service alternative to POTS/broadband. They just need to add a health warning to all adverts etc.

    Everyone else – the ISPs and clouds etc all have paid for their own backup power already, there is no reason they should pay for Vodas too. They also all paid to make a market for Voda to sell services in, they knew the deal.

    1. Avatar photo lolfibre says:

      They could afford some batteries if they didn’t waste money on dumb stuff like this

      https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/vodafone-signs-15-bln-microsoft-deal-ai-cloud-iot-2024-01-16/

    2. Avatar photo fibrelol says:

      Here is Orange mobile site powered in 70% by solar panels, remaining 30% is from diesel generator:
      https://www.speedtest.pl/wiadomosci/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Orange-stacja-bazowa-zasilana-Sloncem.jpg
      There are much smaller with diesel generator (only in case of power cut) and normal size sites with cabinet with bunch of UPS units only – it doesn’t need extra space/land in this case.

  9. Avatar photo Me says:

    Do VF do anything but moan?

    1. Avatar photo Insanity says:

      Vodamoan™ or Vodamone™

  10. Avatar photo rbgb says:

    I would say that providing at least 12hr of power backup to mobile sites should have been part of the initial design planning and it a bit short sited/ignorant of VF to say it’s unaffordable to do now in what for some time has been apparent is increasingly critical infrastructure rather than just something that is nice to have. Would it not be possible to at least mandate backup power for macro cell sites to have at least have an element of basic backup coverage? Personally I feel the mobile companies need to pick up the cost for this as part of operating their networks and if they need to charge a bit more for it then so be it.

  11. Avatar photo Chris says:

    “Vodafone is proposing a shared funding model. The Mobile Network Operators would of course be contributors, but so would the Government, the utility companies that we pay to provide secure and reliable energy services, and the cloud companies…”

    So would the other parties including the government/taxpayer also receive future proceeds from operating these masts to pay off their contributions (As Vodafone will), or are Vodafone after free hand-outs for something that some would argue should have been delivered in the first place?

    1. Avatar photo Bob says:

      Possibly relatively small battery for back up and if the power cut is likely to be prolonged bring in a mobile generator

      It would be interesting to see how many times mobile masts have lost power I suspect it is relatively low. Ideally power them from underground power lines as they are are more reliable. In rural areas though that may not be possible. If is probably the rural masts most at risk of power loss

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