The West Mercia Rural 5G programme is one of several to have grown out of the previous Worcestershire project, but while that led on industry 4.0 the new emphasis is on health and social care.
Photo: Matt Warman being shown the West Mercia Project
The partners in the consortium are Worcestershire County Council as the lead partner, Hutchison 3G, Airband Community Internet, the universities of Chester and Worcester, the NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups of Herefordshire & Worcestershire and Shropshire, Shropshire Council, and the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network.
Stephen Ashton, the Broadband, 5G and Connectivity Manager at Worcestershire County Council, who leads the project, explains that the rural aspects fit in well with other development goals in the region.
“Being a mixture of urban and rural communities means services need to be flexible and operate in both environments. For example, Shropshire is the second-largest inland rural county, with communities spread and displaced across all areas, not just around villages. The topography and sparse population across the Teme Valley and areas around Tenbury in Worcestershire make service delivery a challenge. So as a group we started to think how improved connectivity and specifically 5G solutions could help us. The health partners were interested in overall health outcomes, seeing what could happen across GP surgeries, hospitals and with outpatients; whilst the local authorities were interested to see what could be done across social work and with care homes.
Importantly for all partners it is about working together and including community healthcare to keep patients out of hospitals when they don’t need to be in them, and promoting independence.”
Improving connectivity in rural areas is an ongoing journey, not just for individual mobile phone users, but for businesses and public sector organisations delivering services in rural areas. Ashton explains: “We recognise it is very challenging for operators, using traditional models, to deploy 5G in rural areas at scale and at pace, so new deployment models need to be found and new revenue streams identified.”
There are clearly other applications for 5G in rural areas. For instance, could challenges such as the presence of county lines drugs gangs and theft of agricultural equipment be addressed by 5G solutions and if so, who would pay - farmers, police, insurance companies or all of them? Could some face-to-face services be replaced by virtual visits, and travel costs and time be replaced by data costs and increased time with the resident?
An effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is that many healthcare professionals have become much more reliant on communications technologies, offering video consultations. Before the pandemic there was little use of such services; in most cases, patients were expected to attend surgeries. Now, realising that connectivity can support some services without the need for travel, healthcare professionals need to be confident in the reliability of the technology, while they have become aware of where the current limits are; this increased awareness could drive innovation further. A rural 5G network could be used to support isolated individuals to manage their physical, social and mental well-being, including those affected by dementia. The network could capitalise on the expertise of the Association for Dementia Studies at the University of Worcester.
New Approach To Build
Airband is a project partner with a lot of experience in the region. The company has a history in fixed-wireless deployments of broadband to people’s homes. Its model is replicated throughout the country, with many local expert wireless internet service providers. The project is investigating a new approach to deployment. For Airband it provides a new opportunity to maximise use of existing assets; masts can be made available to mobile network operators (MNOs) to attach their equipment. This offers Airband a new revenue stream, while the MNOs should gain quicker and more cost-effective deployment.
Landlords are engaged, planning may not be required or the work may be considered ‘permitted development’, and power and fibre links are present, reducing the need for wayleaves. There are also challenges; masts might not be in the ideal places for radio planning perspective, but most networks make compromises around site location.
The MNO partner is Three. It is keen to recognise these benefits and work with Airband to test other opportunities around training of engineers and new architecture design. Other Three network traffic will be carried over the network to replicate the real world environment. Three aims to work with public sector partners and designers to explore the art of the possible.
This article was first published in Issue 3 - UK5G Innovation Briefing - which you can access here.