Everywhere in the country, people complain about their mobile coverage, but in rural North Yorkshire 35% of the landmass has no 4G signal. The Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) consortium has a plan to change that.
The project is a collaboration between Quickline Communications, North Yorkshire County Council, Cybermoor 5G Services, Flo-culture, SafeNetics, Wireless Coverage and the Universities of Lancaster and York. And yes, the rivalry has continued since the battle of Bosworth Field. It leads to healthy competition.
Fixing the coverage problem has been tried before. The Local Enterprise Partnership with North Yorkshire County Council offered the mobile networks a £1m contribution to begin to improve coverage. None of the mobile network operators expressed any interest in it. However, the council had a project officer in place who was responsible for improving coverage, and this useful link provided a starting point for the consortium, many of whose members were involved in the 5G Rural Integrated Testbed (5GRIT).
Cybermoor’s Head of 5G Infastructure and Services Daniel Heery explains: “We’d done some work in North Yorkshire and had spoken to the council and LEP about it. They were quite keen to explore further. So when the 5G Rural Connected Communities competition was announced, it made sense that we got everyone together, as Quickline Communications already had some network presence there, to look at the potential of the area, focusing our use cases on local issues.”
Those use cases start with tourism, a crucial industry to the general economy of the county. Just being able to provide connectivity to visitors is important. As Heery says:
“People visit on from Leeds or Newcastle, often meeting up with friends and family who have travelled separately. When they arrive and are about to call to meet up, they realise they can’t connect with each other because they have no signal, making the simple things difficult.”
It’s not just the visitors who need coverage, but those who run the sites.
North Yorkshire is full of stunning attractions. But a lack of connectivity means they often can’t compete with those that can offer an enhanced digital experience due to the lack of mobile data coverage or Wi-Fi. Heery points out that the situation has always been bad, but in the period of Covid lockdown, during which the only contact with customers has been online, the lack of connectivity has been devastating. Locations need an online presence so that they can attract and keep customers engaged while they are at home, so that they will visit in the future. This is one element on which the MANY project will focus. Consortium partner Flo-culture, which specialises in story-telling apps and websites within the arts, heritage and tourism sectors, aim to develop and test innovative visitor experiences that explore how the use of advanced mobile access networks can support and drive the growth of the tourism economy.
Up in the air
The second tourism use case is around the Helikite. This apparatus is a combination of a helium balloon and a kite. Like a World War II barrage balloon, it is lighter than air but can use aerodynamic lift to enable it to carry heavy loads. MANY will use Helikites to provide temporary connectivity at events throughout the county. One event that the consortium has in mind is cycling’s Tour de Yorkshire. This event runs through lots of small villages which typically have a population of 200; during the course of the event day, 10,000 people arrive and want to get on their phones and upload posts to social media. Helikites enable rapid deployment of extra coverage. Flying at heights of less than 200m, they can provide radio coverage over more than 100 square miles. Some cyclists send live telemetry and video to motorcycle outriders using proprietary radio systems. This can then be streamed from the motorcycle through 5G. MANY sees an aerial platform as the way to provide the connectivity required to any sort of temporary traders present with stalls. Security can be offered with techniques such as Push-to-talk, and people also turn up who want to livestream the events.
The work to set up the aerial platforms for 5G coverage is being done under Professor David Grace at the University of York (www.york.ac.uk/chapa, which has customised the Helikite system from Allsopp Helikites to carry various different payloads, along with the trailer that is used to transport them. Grace’s team won National Instruments’ 2018 Europe, Middle East and Africa Engineering Impact Award in the wireless communications category for the development of a software defined radio-based system to be used on the Helikite.
The technology has to be cleverly designed. It’s expected that a fibre-optic cable will run from the base station in the air, down to the ground. Power might take the form of flying batteries or another cable. Which solution is adopted will depend on the application. Tethered aerial platforms are suitable for something like a concert, where connectivity is only needed to fill in when bands are on stage. In the future, for longer term coverage, free flying solar-powered high altitude platforms located at 60 000ft will be capable of regional connectivity that endures.
Beyond tourism, MANY is looking at the work that can be done in wellbeing and mental health, primarily focused on loneliness and people who are isolated, through use of technology such as different apps, voice-activated assistants like Alexa and variations on it, to deliver support to people who are on their own. The consortium wants to add into the mix a support system for doctors who use video links through the accuRx system.
MANY is keen to address the lack of connectivity in the hills of North Yorkshire,
not just so that climbers of the Three Peaks can show off on Strava, but to support the local mountain rescue service. The project organisers are keen to work with the Emergency Services Network to provide a mission-critical layer.
The social good extends to infrastructure monitoring, keeping an eye on any bridges or roads that are at risk of flooding by putting in sensors that are linked to the highways team at North Yorkshire County Council over a mixture of NB-IoT and LoRa wireless networking. It needs to be robust, Heery notes: “The biggest problem tends to be if you’ve got a storm, and you get a lot of rain, there tends to be wind with it as well, and that tends to knock out the power supply.”
Fortunately, Quickline Communications has a lot of experience of running these networks and understands the importance of redundancy and resilience, but there are lessons to learn. Heery is pragmatic about this: “I think one of the important things for us with the actual 5G hardware is to see how it performs on the moors and in the Yorkshire Dales through winter. A lot of this wireless kit that we’ve had in the past in Cybermoor works great on an industrial estate in Slough, on a bracket on the side of a factory, but when you actually stick it on the side of a hill and you give it 100 mile-an-hour winds with rain, you get water ingress, you get icing, and it stops working. So if we want to actually know how this stuff operates in real-life conditions, then we need to put it through those extremes.”
The project has two years to learn these lessons, and to prove that Yorkshire doesn’t have to be a place where high-speed mobile data fears to go.