Why we’re putting rural areas first with our new 5G testbed

The UK is a predominantly rural nation.

According to research from the University of Sheffield, 56% of the UK landscape is made up of agricultural space used for animal grazing and growing crops.

The meaning of the word ‘rural’ carries all sorts of connotations. For most urbanites, it means long walks, fresh air, and – often – bad connectivity.

And this has, by and large, been the dominant story up until now. Mobile data coverage hasn’t been extended throughout the length and breadth of the UK – just 63% of it – and rural areas are typically first among those that miss out.

But 5G is coming in the next few years. It will be a massive leap forward for mobile communications and connectivity in general – and a big chance to set the record straight when it comes to the nation’s digital divide.

Cisco is excited to get involved in 5G RuralFirst, a testbed that brings together technology experts and local businesses to demonstrate how connectivity will benefit rural communities.

5G: connectivity for all

Current and previous generations of mobile technology – 3G in the early 2000s and 4G today – have been more available and operational in urban areas compared to more rural parts of the UK due to the fact that with more people, comes more revenue. However, that’s about to change.

5G technologies, strategies, and business models are being conceived and developed – and it’s not just about the mobile and wireless connectivity as we think of it today. It will also underpin a whole new generation of services known as the Internet of Things (IoT). This will connect individual objects to the internet, allowing them to be controlled or monitored remotely, generating data that can be used to inform better decisions, and opening up completely new economic opportunities. Because rural areas have plenty of “things” that can be internet-connected – from agricultural equipment to buildings and vehicles – we now have the opportunity to make rural IoT a reality, with the potential to benefit local citizens, communities, business and the UK at large. Suddenly, the value of connecting rural areas increases exponentially.

Our RuralFirst project is the first step in this process.

The scope of the project

5G RuralFirst brings together 29 organisations – including Cisco, principal partner University of Strathclyde, the BBC, Scottish Futures Trust, and Agri-EPI Centre – to create a complete end-to-end rural 5G testbed system in three areas in the countryside: Shropshire, Somerset and the Orkney Islands.

There are seven strands to the project, each reflecting the range of potential benefits of rural 5G connectivity:

  • 5G Core Network – deployment of a core network servicing remote areas which will include innovations such as 5G network slicing
  • 5G Radio Access Technology – ensuring pioneer band frequencies (700MHz, 3.5GHz and 26GHz) and integration of other bands including ISM (2.4GHz/5GHz) and spectrum available for sharing
  • Dynamic and Spectrum Access – testing the feasibility of dynamic and shared spectrum for 5G to demonstrate the benefits and operability in rural areas.
  • Broadcast – testing the feasibility of 5G standards to provide a more efficient distribution mechanism for broadcast – both narrowcast, and wider national broadcast.
  • Agri-tech – testing the potential of 5G technologies to improve how farms grow crops and look after livestock
  • Industrial IoT – testing applications for renewable energy, power generation and industrial equipment
  • Orkney – testing a range of use cases across the island to benefit local residents in extreme and very remote environments.

I’m really excited about this project, because 5G has the capacity to add value to rural communities in multiple ways. The poor quality of connectivity in rural parts of the UK, in contrast to urban areas, has been a drag on the rural economy and limited the possibilities for productivity growth and greater employment. This project can help solve some of the practical challenges of living in a remote setting, keeping local residents connected to one another and to the rest of the world.

A 5G vision for the UK’s future

The government wants to make the UK a world leader in 5G.

In July 2018 The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review announced plans to prioritise rural areas for funding. 5G RuralFirst is part of this strategy, having received funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The important thing about 5G is that it’s a great opportunity to level the playing field. We do want to be world leaders, but only if it will benefit everyone – not just those in towns and cities.

So these aims will be crucial to the success of the RuralFirst project: to share our excitement for 5G with mobile network operators, governments and rural businesses.

Putting rural communities first

Connectivity has already had a dramatic effect on the UK’s towns and cities. Its powered businesses, enabled the provision of public services, and brought people together.

But it’s unfair that we extend these benefits to urban areas alone. Rural communities have just as much to gain from mobile communications and have the potential to use it to benefit the UK as a whole – as our project will prove in due course.

A digital divide exists between town and countryside, and the introduction of 5G is the perfect chance to put it right. The only way we can start is to go rural, first.

July 26, 2018 in 5G Access Technology, Community and Infrastructure