Virgin Media Business has announced plans to launch a wholesale small cell network that will enable UK mobile operators to deliver faster and more robust internet connections than current 3G services or Wi-Fi.

Small cells are low-powered radio access nodes that improve indoor and outdoor coverage to increase capacity and offload traffic.

Ofcom indicated last year that small cells, such as femtocells and microcells, will have to be incorporated into the 4G LTE network infrastructure if mobile operators are to cope with the massive surge in demand for data.

Virgin Media Business has teamed up with Newcastle and Bristol councils to conduct small scale trials of “metrocells” – a type of microcell based on a system-on-chip (SoC) architecture that is optimised for use in urban areas.

LTE metrocell access points from Alcatel Lucent and Airspan were mounted on street furniture, such as lampposts, and connected back into Virgin Media’s network via a fibre optic link.

Within a 200m radius of the metrocell, data transmission was typically three times as fast as existing 3G macrocell networks, delivering download speeds of up to 90Mbps – albeit to a very small number of users. At a distance of 300m, the speed was closer to 50Mbps.

The trials also proved that the signal is strong enough to penetrate most buildings without interrupting user experience, according to Virgin Media Business.

Dr Simon Saunders, director of technology for Real Wireless, said that small cells can benefit mobile operators by providing offload capacity when macro networks become overloaded, improving the depth of coverage in buildings, and enabling them to provide continuous coverage.

Saunders, who helped Virgin conduct the trials, explained that metrocells can be spread out across a city to create “corridors of high capacity”, so that users have a consistently fast connection.

“These trials show that small cells have the potential to supercharge internet connectivity and deliver a sustainable solution to today’s mobile bottleneck,” he said.

Virgin Media Business is now in negotiations with the UK's mobile operators to deploy small cells on a wider scale. The company intends to offer metrocells as a hosted managed service, so mobile operators can simply add their own radio heads onto Virgin's infrastructure.

Kevin Baughan, director of wireless at Virgin Media Business, said this “small cells as a service” concept should appeal to mobile operators because it is more cost effective than each operator building their own small cell infrastructure.

“We are not just catering to a fixed pool of demand, but offering an opportunity for growth and innovation by putting the infrastructure out there,” said Baughan.

Saunders added that, as mobile operators increasingly offer services over a shared network infrastructure, small cells could become the “last bastion” of competition, allowing them to differentiate from their rivals on speed and capacity.

The cost of such a rollout is not yet clear, but Bristol City Council's Helen Bream suggested that public money invested as part of the government's “super-connected cities” programme could be used to support the deployment of small cells.

Steve Smith, from Newcastle City Council, added that local governments have a responsibility to provide the infrastructure to allow its citizens to take advantage of online public services. “We see the small cell and mobile operators helping a great deal,” he said.