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Brave Bowerchalke Boffins Build 5G Network in Britain's Biggest Broadband Black-spot

  • 5 minute read
  • Published by Simon Rockman on 31 Jul 2020
  • Last modified 5 Aug 2020
The largest contiguous inland not-spot is just south of Stonehenge. Promises of connectivity from big operators came to nothing, so the local community took matters into its own hands and built a network.

Mobile Operator Neutral Host (MONeH) is one of the most technology-oriented consortia in the Rural Connected Communities projects. Its name reflects the implementation of one of the less-talked-about features of 5G. Neutral Host is a mechanism through which a company, community, or campus can put in its own mobile network and then provide connectivity for the main mobile network operators.

Moneh team - press release

(LtoR) Delia Robinson (Project CFO), Ed Gairdner (resident) Jonathan Andrew(Director, Chalke Mobile), John Glen (MP), James Body (CEO Telet Research), José Green(Councillor) & Simon Rockman (Project Lead)

 A five-cell network
The Chalke Valley in Wiltshire is a beautiful, small, rural community about 20 minutes’ drive from Stonehenge that is distinguished by having its own mobile phone network: Ch4lke Mobile. The 4 in the name is a tribute to B4RN, Broadband for the Rural North, a community-led project north of Lancaster set up by local residents so fed up with not having decent internet that they built a network themselves.

Ch4lke Mobile is a community mobile-phone network which grew out of the frustration felt by ex-Royal Signals officer James Body, a Chalke Valley resident and founder of Telet Research,  who wanted mobile coverage in his village of Broad Chalke. Body has built international mobile networks in the past and understands the challenges of making a mobile network, including radio, spectrum, backhaul, billing and numbering issues.

James BodyJames Body is the CEO of Telet research

MONeH regards Ch4lke Mobile as “phase 0” of its project. The initial phase of Ch4lke Mobile was 4G, operating at 2300 MHz band 40 with an 1800 MHz 2G overlay that offered circuit-switched fallback to 2G for voice and messaging, operating on the shared access spectrum of DECT Guard Band. MONeH is ambitious, full-fat 5G that will offer mobile edge computing, network slicing and, in the timescale of the DCMS project, standalone services through release 17.

Body explains: “We are tackling the problem in a two-phased approach. First we will deploy a 5G non-standalone configuration - where a wide-area, narrowband service offers basic mobile coverage - then upgrade to full 5G-standalone, which incorporates a full 5G core infrastructure to fully support multiple network slices. This allows each MNO and slice customer to fully manage and control their own network slice using a common Radio Access Network.”

He uses the formal Ofcom definition for basic coverage of 2 Mbps data, voice and messaging. But in the case of MONeH, it will be aggregated with a much higher speed 5G-NR signal to provide much higher data rates.

Because it’s a small, steep valley with only small villages, covering the area with radio signals is hard, and it is even harder for the mobile networks to justify the cost. It’s a problem complicated by the place being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. No-one wants big mobile phone masts.

Residents lament the failure of previous attempts. The Mobile Infrastructure Project promised five sites and delivered none. Ch4lke Mobile Director Jonathan Andrew (pictured below) told us: “The issue of connectivity in the Chalke Valley is a longstanding one. We have had a lot of broken promises. MONeH needs to make sure it delivers.”

Jonathan Andrew

Robust Network
MONeH’s solution to all these problems comes from working with the support of the local community. Rather than having a few tall cells, from which signals then fail to reach into the twists and dips of the valley, MONeH will use around 50 small cells on people’s chimneys and barns. These small cells running at low power will provide a much more adjustable level of coverage. They are unobtrusive and welcomed by residents who will get broadband at speeds that previously they could only have dreamed of, in return for hosting them on their buildings and providing them with power.

One issue many mobile phone networks face is local opposition to eyesore towers. The low-key nature of the MONeH implementation has the full support of the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the organisation which preserves the rural nature of the region through various initiatives including a Dark Night Sky protection project. At night viewers can see a sky full of stars, and they’re not just the celebrities who live in the area.

Only a few of the cells will be connected to fibre backhaul; most will be linked through a wireless mesh. Some will be powered by solar panels. This means the system should be fantastically resilient. In a major storm, even if the mains power is cut and roads become impassable, the 5G network will stay up as long as just one of the fibres, which are supplied by multiple vendors, keeps its connection live. Which will be good going for a place that today has no coverage at all.   

This article originally appeared in UK5G Innovation Briefing. To be sent a copy please sign up.