A little over 18 months ago, I found myself in a room with more than 80 people from 30 different organisations.
We started with a simple premise: that connectivity should be accessible for everyone, regardless of where they work and live.
In reality, this would mean something more complex.
We would need to design and build a 5G infrastructure in some of the most challenging environments across the UK, and then develop uses which could prove the potential that connectivity could bring to these rural areas.
It was certainly a tall order and one that at times, tested us all. But after a year spent pushing the boundaries of what was possible with rural connectivity, we decided to aim even higher and were granted more time and funding to pursue this pioneering work further with new use cases and wider exploration of both technologies and business cases.
In the end, we did more than simply pursue. We surpassed.
Our work on spectrum sharing has helped to inform Ofcom.
The regulator’s decision to make more spectrum available to those living and working outside of urban centres is the kind of result you dream of when embarking on a project such as this.
To end this project knowing that our work has helped shift regulation in favour of the rural and remote communities we first set out to represent is, for me, as humbling as it is inspiring.
Brand new tech
As might be expected for such an ambitious undertaking, 5G RuralFirst has birthed a number of innovative new technological solutions across its 20+ use cases.
Our 5G cores have been crucial to getting test sites up and running, and enabled us to explore brand new capabilities such as the use of LiFi, seamless Wi-Fi connections with OpenRoaming technology, high speed remote monitoring of offshore salmon farms, and so much more.
When we started this journey investigating the challenges of, and solutions to, rural connectivity, we often heard the prevailing mantra “but nobody lives here!”, translating roughly into “there is limited consumer demand”.
If we have showed one thing via 5G RuralFirst, it’s that there are a wide range of business challenges where connectivity and 5G in particular can deliver benefit and new service revenue for network operators.
We have demonstrated that enterprise business models are key to helping operators earn a return from rural investments, as witnessed by our use cases in agriculture, salmon farming and renewable energy in particular.
The business case can’t be made in most areas based upon only the consumer demand, but one thing we have clearly shown is that rural areas are home to millions of “things”.
The eyes of the world
The unique nature of our use cases attracted the attention of the world’s media.
We’ve hosted everyone from The Economist, to Bloomberg, the Sunday Times, Reuters, Forbes, and the BBC (multiple times). Our work in Orkney has been followed closely by the local press, and proved a keen source of interest for residents.
Whether told through an app that connects people with our Somerset cows in real time, or a beautiful new piece of music pieced together from recordings at our test sites and inspired by the Orkney islands, our stories have captivated people all over the globe.
And why is this important?
Because one of the ambitions of the project from day one was to raise awareness of the importance of rural connectivity to everyone, from the general public to policymakers.
We’ve taken this technology – and the story of 5G RuralFirst – well and truly beyond the city.
It goes without saying that none of this could have happened without the hard work, dedication, brilliance (and occasional flashes of genius) of the countless team members who’ve made up the 5G RuralFirst consortium.
And for me, to have such a diverse, talented group come together – and stay together – for almost 2 years since those early discussions forming the project through to delivery of something of this scale is perhaps the most impressive achievement.
It’s a testament to what can be achieved through genuine collaborative co-innovation.
All good things…
It’s always a bittersweet moment when a project like this comes to an end.
Looking back over what this consortium of talented individuals has achieved in the past year and a half, makes it all the sweeter this time around.
Over that time, we have endeavoured to demonstrate the immense value that 5G can offer rural areas, and the huge amount these communities have to offer UK Plc. As a team, we remain committed to delivering rural connectivity and are optimistic about the next steps in our journey to make our world a better, more connected place to be.