Article first published in the Innovation Briefing magazine (view on flickread) and written by Dez O'Connor, Cisco.
There are specific applications of 5G that make it an invaluable enabler for rural applications, but there is a broader, over-arching reason why it’s appropriate that 5G RuralFirst took the eponymous approach. Dez O’Connor, senior manager at lead partner Cisco, explains that it’s not just about 5G, it’s about providing any coverage to places that don’t have it, and if you are going to do that you might as well use the latest technology.
It has become accepted that internet access is as much a basic need as telephone, mains water and electricity. But beyond that, fast internet access opens possibilities for rural communities that enable them to capitalise on their environment. The 5G RuralFirst project brought together 30 organisations that include joint lead partner the University of Strathclyde, the BBC, BT and the Orkney Islands Council to provide internet access to Orkney, Somerset and Shropshire.
On Orkney, the technology provides high-speed access to benefit tourism, salmon farming, a wind farm and the wider local community. One of the special aspects of the project is that it uses 700MHz spectrum, which was licensed to the University of Strathclyde for the project on an Office of Communications (Ofcom) experimental licence before the planned auction of the spectrum this year. The use of 700MHz provides good, wide-area coverage, which is particularly valuable for the tourist routes.
Major areas of the islands have been covered, providing the consortium with a lot of experience of rolling out a network in a harsh landscape with high winds and corrosive saltwater in the air. As 700MHz is a newly available frequency in many parts of the world, there aren’t many phones or devices that support it. Therefore, the consortium has
used it to build internet connectivity around the islands and has then added Wi-Fi for
final hops into people’s houses and pockets. This coverage includes the ferry, which provides a lifeline for the community.
In Shropshire, project partners Agri-Epicenter and Precision Decisions used drones to harvest agricultural information. The data was managed through the Cisco 5G Core, designed by the Cisco Customer Experience team, and was hosted in the Tier III DataVita data centre, which is located just off the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It houses up to 2,000 racks, all powered by 100% renewable energy. The Core delivers new features to enable low latency use cases, and within the Ultra Packet Core there is a Control Plane and User Plane Separation architecture, known as CUPS. The 5G RuralFirst deployment was a world first in rural Internet of Things.
Edge computing, one of the key technologies of 5G, was employed so that, while the control plane sat in Scotland, the user plane could be sited closer to the customer, which was Harper Adams University farm in Shropshire.
The data was processed in a local edge cloud on-site, which meant latency was minimised across the network. This system enabled good support for automated activities on the farm, such as drones and a driverless tractor. This machine required the system to e
mploy around 20 ms latency for safe use.
Herd on a mobile
Connected cows have become something of a cliché, but clichés have a reason for being such. There is huge value for farmers in being able to track and monitor herds. To this end, Milo Creative developed the Me+Moo app for the smartphone. This app enables a user to track a dairy cow that they choose to ‘adopt’ through an Afimilk Silent Herdsman IoT collar on the cow. The collar accurately monitors the cow’s health and activities, and through the inclusion of a 3D accelerometer, enables app users to follow their cow’s journey for a week, tracking well-being, feeding, sleeping, milking, scratching and resting. The cheeky software is a little like a dating app, but with gamification and educational video-diary entries from Duncan the farmer, giving insight into the lives of connected cows, the running of the farm, and the transformative power of 5G. A ‘moonitor’ at the heart of the app displays the cow’s latest activity and mood, earning awards for both the user of the app and the cow during the week. Users are rewarded for joining up by inviting them to form herds with their friends to whom they can send ‘moosages’. A leader-board that shows the most active herds has helped to spread the 5G RuralFirst message virally.
The most spectacular part of 5G RuralFirst was the delivery of 5G to the Orkney Islands. Of the 70 islands in the archipelago, 20 are populated but some with very few people.
The area includes the world’s shortest scheduled airline flight of 1.7 miles between Westray and Westray Papa: the flight takes two minutes, although the record is under a minute. Such conditions make the cost of getting high-speed broadband to the inhabitants and businesses very challenging. It’s taken a combination of determination and innovation to do it. But the delivery of broadband actually saves money, as it reduces the need for people to travel and it revolutionises the way Orcadians live. It also helps to retain the younger population on the islands.
One part of the trial connected a wind farm on Orkney to the network. Part of the job of Shona Croy, strategic adviser for renewables and connectivity with Orkney Islands Council, is to consider ways to make the most of the islands’ seemingly infinite resource of wind. A major problem is that, while there is tremendous capacity, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) pricing model does not encourage the production, and the islands are severely limited by the capacity of the cables that run between Orkney and the rest of Scotland. Part of the solution is better data communications. Enabling the rest of the grid to know what is going on is an essential part of keeping the lights on throughout the UK. Lots of use cases are cited for the low latency of 5G communications, but nothing comes close to the mandated reaction time in power generation. If a circuit trips or there is a brown-out, a warning needs to be sent within fractions of a millisecond, not the tens of milliseconds required by driverless cars or online gaming. There may not be a need for high data rates or millions of devices in a small area, but the amazingly low latency of 5G makes it invaluable.
Salmon without doubt
Along with wind, the Orkney Islands offer a lot of water. The sea around the islands is home to the UK’s largest food export: salmon. Fish farming is a form of livestock production with a small carbon footprint. Salmon is also a healthy foodstuff; it is particularly high in Omega 3 fatty acids and the fish from Orkney are low in fat. The strong currents mean that Orkney salmon swim more strongly than those in stiller waters, which reduces their fat content. Run by Scottish Sea Farms, the Orkney site produces salmon and smoked salmon for Marks and Spencer.
Picture caption: Shona Croy extolls the value of Orkney wind power, which Scottish Sea Farms' Richard Darbyshire shows Cisco's Laura Carhill a fish destined for Marks and Spencer.
Richard Darbyshire, regional production manager at Scottish Sea Farms explains that the fish have to meet a demanding specification that requires less fat and twice the Omega 3 content of other brands. The fast waters also mean that the fish are far less likely than those in slower water to have sea lice. While the farm uses weaver fish in with the salmon to keep them clean, the Orkney fish are heavily monitored by use of water sensors and cameras. Fish are kept in large off-shore nets, and although a person is on site much of the time, the ability to perform remote, wireless monitoring and care is important.
Some of the telemetry is low-bandwidth and uses LoRa (long range radio) technology, but video needs more throughput and that means 5G. One of the biggest threats that the salmon face is a seal getting into the net. Seals take advantage of the quantity of fish by gorging themselves, taking just the tastiest bite out of each one.
At the moment video runs only from the nets to the feeding barge, but the ability to monitor remotely, particularly during storms when it may be impossible to reach the barge, is critical. Very high resolution is needed because the marine experts who monitor the health of the salmon need to be able to check the skin quality.
Salmon naturally swim in shoals. Critics of fish farms say that the fish are kept in cramped conditions, but fish farmers argue that salmon are seen close together because they deliberately swim together. The monitoring of fish that are in close proximity with one another requires high resolution, and the transmission of that information back to an office that spares the farmer the need to be on the seas needs 5G.
BBC Tech tested
Lots of wind and lots and lots of saltwater might be good things for the Orcadian economy but they play havoc with electronics. The conditions meant that the team from Cisco and the University of Strathclyde learned how to build 4G and 5G systems that could withstand the harsh environment.
The BBC worked with the Orkney Islands Council to take the iPlayer to the island of Stronsay, which was chosen because it suffered from limited fixed broadband, little or no mobile coverage and poor digital radio coverage. The BBC 5G Broadcast trial transmitted 13 radio stations, including BBC Radio Orkney, live over the 4G/5G system. In addition, it provided mobile internet access to participants. The service used an antenna based on the Stronsay school, to which some local residents objected, so the service was withdrawn at the end of the trial.
All those involved have learned many lessons. Kenny Barlee from the University of Strathclyde talked about not only mastering the harsh environment, but gaining an understanding of the dynamic use of spectrum, which will become important in the roll-out of the major mobile networks over the next few years. Barlee also encountered an interesting characteristic of 5G. One of the key technologies of 5G, multiple input, multiple output (MIMO), employs multi-path technology to improve data throughput. This technology takes advantage of the way signals bounce around on their way from a base station to a handset or other receiver. However, with so few buildings on Orkney, there wasn’t much to bounce off, and so the benefits of multi-path were lost.
The work Cisco has done in 5G RuralFirst will be translated into international sales opportunities for the company, not just for the rural experience but through Cisco’s portfolio of radio, Packet Core, security, automation and IP transport, and as a shop window for the ability of the Cisco Customer Experience team to design, deploy and operate 5G software-defined networks to support a plethora of use cases. What at the start of the trial seemed like Cisco providing a benefit to the people of Somerset, Shropshire and Orkney, now seems to be a project in which all parties are equally rewarded.