Small cell technology - a new internet signal amplifier which makes connections faster than 3G and WiFi, could provide an answer to the rapidly accelerating demand for mobile broadband in urban areas, according to Virgin Media Business.
The devices, which are shoe-box sized and can be mounted on street lights and connected to Virgin Media’s fibre optic network, have been tested in Bristol and Newcastle between June and July this year.
Virgin Media Business claims the data transmission using small cells was typically three times faster than existing 3G networks - delivering data speeds of up to 90Mb/s - both inside buildings and outside in public spaces.
As consumers' phones become more technologically advanced, the amount of capacity and bandwith available for mobile networks has become constrained - Virgin Media hopes these small cells will provide extra capacity to speed up downloads in busy places.
The smart cell boxes are manufactured by Alcatel Lucent. Mobile networks Everything Everywhere, 3 and Vodafone have also been been shown the results of the trial and 3 has already provided "encouraging and positive feedback" according to Kevin Baughan, director of technical strategy at Virgin Media.
The key difference between the small cell technology and existing WiFi networks was capacity, Baughan explained.
"The distance each of these boxes covers is about 500m, so it wouldn't do to have that instead of big cells, but it does provide extra capacity for areas which are busy," he said.
Typical areas which could benefit from extra capacity include railway hubs, airports, tourist areas and stadiums.
The small cells are able to bleed through walls – indoors and outside – and the connection is more reliable than 3G and Wi-Fi because it operates in the radio spectrum.
Real Wireless, an independent research company, carried out an in-depth analysis of the performance and validity of the LTE small cells trial.
Dr Simon Saunders, director of technology for Real Wireless, said while 4G connectivity was "eagerly waiting in the wings". small cells would dramatically improve the performance of 3G networks in the meantime.
“We’re still in the early stages of understanding what this technology can do, but these trials show that small cells have the potential to supercharge internet connectivity and deliver a sustainable solution to today’s mobile bottleneck.”
Virgin Media Business now plans to wholesale small cells to other mobile operators.
Baughan said: “In the future, cities will demand even faster connectivity and with mobile broadband set for explosive growth, small cells are offering a way forward that will rise to the challenge of superfast connectivity on the move.
"The big advantage we have is we've already got the fibre networks in the big cities and have those key relationships, which will make it easier to gain access to mounting areas like lampost."