Sluggish mobile internet in central London is set to be boosted by ultra-fast “mini-cell towers” strapped to lamp posts in some busy tourist areas.
Westminster council has approved the first shoebox-sized transmitter to combat “not-spots”, as networks struggle to cope with demand from more than 1.5 million daily West End users.
The move could net the council £21 million once the network is rolled out. It follows complaints that download speeds can slow to just one megabit per second — not enough to stream 1080p films — when 4G should be at least five times that speed.
Some of the worst areas are Oxford Circus, Bond Street, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Mayfair. The council said mobile users complain of being unable to use data-heavy services such as 4K video streaming and high-resolution online gaming, which lags and leads to choppy graphics.
The new lower-power transmitters, called “small cell nodes”, will be powered by the lamp posts. Similar boxes have already been installed in the City.
They transmit their own concentrated signal within networks run by providers such as EE and Vodafone, but over a smaller distance than big rooftop masts. The grey boxes, made by Nokia and supplied by infrastructure firm Ontix, will be painted black and could also be attached to road signs.
The first device will be fitted to a Trafalgar Square lamp post in November. The ambition is to fit one box every 100 metres along roads to maximise coverage. This new network will help support 5G when it goes London-wide, probably in 2020.
Westminster council will take a cut of the rental fee from phone providers using the boxes as part of a 10-year contract. It says £10 million income is “guaranteed”, plus up to a further £11 million based on “revenue share” from usage.
As part of the deal, Ontix has been allowed to “buy the rights to use existing street-level infrastructure”. The firm said it was more straightforward for mobile networks to add their small boxes to lamp posts and street signs instead of having them seek permission from building owners to install large mobile masts on rooftops.
Ontix said the lower power of the boxes means people are “not exposed to levels of radio frequency” emitted by traditional masts.
Antony Tomlinson, the company’s chief executive, said: “They are mini-cell towers broadcasting bandwidth from a lower power unit over a small area.
“It means each person gets a much bigger slice of the available bandwidth. This is a huge opportunity, and one of the very first of its kind on this scale.”