5G project aims to address UK's digital divide

Mobile phone mast in field

Autonomous tractors and farmland drones, digital tools for small businesses and radio to your phones. All opportunities for rural communities hindered by one thing: connectivity.

More specifically, a lack of secure, reliable mobile connectivity. Geographically, only 63% of the UK has mobile data coverage from all of the four main providers.

Yet recent research highlights that increased usage of digital technologies in rural communities represents tens of billions of pounds’ worth of opportunity for the UK economy.

Digital technologies

The business case for the investment in connectivity crucial to make these digital technologies viable is challenged; it relies on outdated economic models for return on investment that are unable to pre-empt the benefit of new technologies, whether for the nation or for business.

This is the challenge that 5G RuralFirst project, a co-innovation project between industry, government and academia, aims to help solve as part of the recent 5G testbed and trial competition announced by the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

As such, it will explore the benefits of 5G for rural communities and industries like agriculture, broadcasting, and utilities. It will also look to address the barriers to, and build the business case for, investment in 5G rural deployment.

With Cisco as the named lead, and principal partner the University of Strathclyde, the network of 32 organisations includes some of the most innovative startups, tech leaders and academic institutions in the UK.

The project will aim to create a complete end-to-end rural 5G testbed system for trials of new wireless and networking technologies, spectrum sharing, new applications and services; stimulating new business models, all with a focus on testing and demonstrating innovative approaches for ensuring that 5G connectivity is accessible and affordable in hard-to-reach rural areas. 

Testbeds and trials for the project will primarily be based on the Orkney islands to the very north of Scotland, and the farmlands of Somerset and Shropshire. The locations will be linked to the distributed Cisco 5G cloud platform at DataVita’s Tier III data centre facility near Glasgow and will collaborate with the wider 5G UK ecosystem with the University of Surrey 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC).

The project will look to support and inform the development of the UK's 5G eco-system so that it is able to address the needs and aspirations of communities and businesses in rural locations in ways that 4G, 3G, and 2G have not been able to do. 

Internet connectivity

Professor Bob Stewart of the Centre for White Space Communication at Strathclyde said: “After a number of years trialling with TV White Space shared spectrum, we now see the very clear opportunity for future 5G mobile and wireless radios and networks to support and use shared and dynamic spectrum access technologies. 

"Working with innovative radio manufacturers and spectrum database providers we see very clear opportunity for shared spectrum to work effectively alongside the services and coverage from current licensed mobile spectrum and unlicensed (Wi-Fi) spectrum.”

Nick Chrissos, Director of Innovation, Cisco Europe said: “The UK currently ranks fifth in the world when it comes to our readiness to embrace digital. We have the ambition, the innovative heritage and the expert ecosystems to shape the UK’s digital future, but to do so we have to address fundamental issues like making internet connectivity work for everyone.

"5G RuralFirst looks to help close the digital divide in the UK. To uncover the opportunities and challenges faced in 5G deployment, and to ensure that it can do what other generations have yet to. It’s not only about implementing the right technology in the right way. It’s about designing networking technology intelligently from the very start.

Giving careful consideration to critical issues like security; which becomes even more complex when you are connecting everything from drones to autonomous tractors.”

Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, said: "New technology has the potential to transform business and society and we’re determined nowhere in the UK will be left behind by a 5G future. These testbeds will show how our rural communities can harness the power of this revolution in connectivity, bringing benefits across agriculture, industry and wider society."