5G industry news Telecommunications Topic | Rural Affairs

Can 5G Really Solve the Rural Connectivity Challenge?

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Vicki DeBlasi on 8 Sep 2022
  • Last modified 8 Sep 2022
There is wide agreement on the importance of bridging the digital divide, and 5G is heralded by some as the panacea to solving rural connectivity. However, the rural connectivity challenge is a longstanding and complex one. Is 5G really the save-all solution it has been touted as?

To answer this, we caught up with Dave Happy, lead on the multi-award winning 5G RuralDorset project, and Peter Shearman, Head of innovation at Cisco, UK and Ireland who has led the award winning 5G RuralFirst, 5G New Thinking and been a key partner in 5G Wales Unlocked and NeutrORAN.

Two vastly experienced individuals coming at the exam question from different angles, based on their learnings and insights from the 5GTT programme, with a surprising amount of accordance and very similar solutions.

Consider capacity

Dave Happy: “Based on my experience running 5G RuralDorest, and time working in the sector, if we are looking to close or fix the digital divide, then we need to start thinking about rural connectivity in terms of capacity, not just connectivity and coverage.

“I am championing rural communities and projects but am practical around making margin; I want to make the technology cheaper to buy, deploy and operate, so whoever puts it in – be they big operators, small operators or neutral hosts – there is enough there to make it commercially viable.

“There are also new technologies, such as Fibre in Water (FiW), and good old fashioned P2P radio. Whatever it takes, but please don’t make the assumption that people are happy being second class citizens in their community. Things must change.”

Peter Shearman: “I’d second the point about capacity. It is also a problem in some urban areas, where you don’t get the capacity investments in networks, for fixed and cellular, and network densification isn’t possible.”

Less the plumbing, more the system

Peter: “At Cisco, we have run, so far, four rural 5G projects, including with the Welsh Government and up in the Orkney Isles, and what we’ve found is 5G gives you more tools than would be available before.

“On a personal note, before Cisco, I worked in the digital inclusion policy field. I remember trying to solve the problem with fixed line operators. We could never get around it from an ISP perspective.

“If the underlying network didn't look like BT and Openreach as a system, then there was very little chance of getting in.

“Those ISPs use an equivalence management platform (EMP) in Openreach, so all OSS/BSS is configured for that. That is how you order a line, set up a line, even billing. Unless you look the same, they’re not going to invest the money for 10,000 customers. A million homes, maybe…

“So, that was ten years ago, with fixed line. My understanding is not a great deal of that has changed. With cellular we have a chance to avoid that.”

Don’t let history repeat itself

Peter: “More recently, we have managed to do things like small cell networks already, essentially a 3rd-party network that is now part of your MNO infrastructure.

“With 5G, you can go further – neutral host models and so on – meaning that you could bring your own network and ISPs/MNOs would be happy to provide the connect for their subscribers.

“That is where the opportunity sits; a lot more tools than we ever had in previous generations of cellular.”

Dave: “I definitely agree with that. For me, we need to change the gross value added and the conditions in rural areas. I have been part of this world for 37 years, and part of a structure that has led to that digital gap getting worse, not better, and I am not proud of that.

“That’s one of the reasons why I am so passionately keen to fight for places like Orkney  and Dorset. The further out the better frankly, because wherever there is a need to do something that looks impossible is where it is most interesting.”

The Four S’s

Dave: “There are four S’s that I’d like to share, with an addition of realpolitik. I’m an indie fan, and there is a great line by a band called Nothing but Thieves: “Why do you want to do good, when you can feel good”. It is more that people are wanting to feel it rather than do it, because the economics never stacked up.

“Four key things, important for 5G:

Standards: 5G standards do have a role for that medium-long term, as we don't have an adequate position as a nation, yet, unlike my efficiency colleagues in Korea.
Spectrum: Crucial – IMT 2020. Harmonised congress world radio bands applicable globally that give us the economies of scope and scale
Skills: Less critical, but our ability to train people on digital skills, including 5G. 
Security:  If you can't trust a network, 5G or otherwise, nobody is going to use them.”
Peter: “As a security- and standards-first company, I wholly agree, and this is an important part of what Cisco does.

“Standards have to go hand-in-hand with what is going on in the market. The best standards emerge from what people are doing and already seeing in operation; capturing things you know can be done.”

Regional intervention

Peter: “We have to think about connectivity for rural areas and regions from a government perspective, from an interventionist perspective.

“For a while it’s been black and white, almost literally, because of the approach to market intervention in connectivity. Tech and networks have moved on from that, with a modern enterprise connectivity world.

“This leads to more room for creativity. We are working with a region at the moment, who are looking at their corporate connectivity, and want to understand how that can be used to support their digital inclusion objectives.

“I would start to think about network and tech services, as you think of Section 106 with developers (legal planning permission agreements between Local Authorities and developers, linked to site specific mitigation of the impact of development).

“How do you apply that type of thinking, using the levers that weren't available to us before, to bring about a more digitally-included reality?”

Dave: “We’re already on the way, so yes 5G can help to solve the challenge. But it's one of the tools – to look at it in isolation is actually naive.”

Policy, pushing and partners

Peter: “From a government perspective, there has been a reasonably consistent policy team, first with BDUK and then the 5GTT team. It has expanded significantly, into demand and supply side interventions, as well as the regulatory oversight, and online content too.

“You look at the best in the world out there, there is more we can do. An example is Estonia, with such high adoption of digital services. Sounds boring but we know what is important – keep pushing digital services, digital adoption, getting the rest of government towards those channels, driving takeup, that's how you get skill acquisition going at local levels.”

“Furthermore, there needs to be a way to reflect the demand side of rural areas in the willingness to look at investmentment cases and intervention. Can 5G do it on its own? No, it is part of your toolbox.

“We need to think of the public sector as a user in rural areas. Consumers like the MOD basically own entire rural communities around the UK. Often big institutions exist within a locality, such as the National Trust, charitable land owners, university campuses or the Co-op, which exists to serve these types of community.

“We need to ask more about what they can offer by way of leverage, as part of their measurement /charters are looking at how they help their local communities.”

Dave: “Again I agree, and have proof – we don’t shout about it, but the MOD is effectively embedded in 5G RuralDorset, and is Dorest’s largest employer, not tourism. We were able to work with them, and we’ve even got a NATO-accredited facility. Because companies and academia and councils may not have the contact base, you have to have a strong lead joining all the diverse strands of knowledge together.”

Cream of the crop

Dave: “One of the things Peter helped pioneer was stackable use cases. The example I am most proud of is Dorset’s agriculture robots. Using mmwave to enable per-plant (PP) farming and massively increase yields – a 200-250% increase.

“At a time when there are global challenges with wheat and grain trade, crop yields and chemicals on plants, these amazing battery-powered machines can identify weeds at a PP level, using AI, and zap with electricity, so the waste is mulched back into the soil. 

“As you can imagine, the file sizes are quite large. Traffic may even match a dense urban area like Oxford Street, but this is Upminster, not Westminster.

“Off the back of that, I want to serve local schools, care homes or other remote locations, and I can extraload that mast with more equipment. 

“This is the way that 5G can help solve the rural connectivity problem, via measured, practical stackable use cases.”

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