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Telstra's 4G COWs keep Splendour campers happy

Telstra deployed two 4G-enabled cells on wheels at the Splendour in the Grass music festival at Byron Bay to keep up with the demand of some 25,000 festival goers.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Telstra's 4G network doesn't quite yet reach Byron Bay, but residents and festival goers over the weekend got a taste for the superfast network thanks to two 4G cells on wheels (COWs) deployed for Splendour in the Grass.

Splendour's main stage.
Image: Josh Taylor/ZDNet

Over 25,000 people descended on the upper New South Wales coastal town of Byron Bay over the weekend for the 13th annual Splendour in the Grass music festival. The three-day event sees the likes of The National, Empire of the Sun, Passion Pit, The Presets, Flume, and James Blake perform on multiple stages. The festival itself takes place in a location that would have seen its fair share of cows before — about half an hour north of Byron Bay in Yelgun, a 660-acre site in the North Byron Parklands.

To prepare for the influx of punters who would put a strain on the network with tweeting, Instagramming, and posting Facebook status updates, Telstra drove down two 4G-enabled COWs from Brisbane a few days prior. Telstra's acting director of wireless network engineering Channa Seneviratne told ZDNet that although Byron Bay itself doesn't yet have 4G, it wasn't too much effort to set up the 4G-enabled COWs on Telstra's network in the area.

"The key thing is to have the LTE [long-term evolution] radio base station in the COW itself, and then from there, what we have to do is connect it via our backhaul back to our core network," he said.

"We connected up the backhaul [and] we used two microwave links to a fibre access point which is two kilometres away [from the festival] and then from there, it went through our Ethernet backhaul network to our core network," he said.

The set-up usually takes about a day, he said, but it took longer than expected because one of the COWs required a 20-metre mast, whereas the typical height of masts on COWs is approximately 12 metres.

"When the guys looked at the design of the location they had to deploy in, they realised that they couldn't get enough coverage in the location it was required, so they had to bring in a much taller mast. So it is a bit of design work required to get the optimum outcome," he said.

Two COWs were enough for the entire area of the festival to be covered by 4G, according to Seneviratne.

"In the case of the festival, it is a very localised area and a clear line of sight," he said.

ZDNet's experience of the Telstra network at the site showed that when connected to LTE, the network performed well, but when on the 3G network, data was slow and unreliable under the strain of so many customers in the one location. Seneviratne said that this would begin to change as more customers move over to 4G.

"The key thing now is that we're now beginning to see many 4G handsets on the network, and that is what is helping us shift traffic from the 3G to 4G network," he said.

Telstra has been progressively upgrading its COWs to 4G over the past 12 months. So far, 15 of the 20 COWs that are based in Australia's capital cities are now 4G enabled. The COWs are used for not only high-capacity events such as music festivals, but also in natural disaster areas, where normal mobile coverage has been compromised.

Although Byron Bay doesn't have 4G services today, Telstra is in the process of rolling out 4G across regional Australia, with an aim to have 85 percent of the population covered by the end of 2013. As of March, Telstra had reported that there were 2.1 million 4G devices on its network, and 14.4 million active mobile services.

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