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What Value can Rural Communities Realise by Being Connected?

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Vicki DeBlasi on 30 Jun 2022
  • Last modified 30 Jun 2022
With a fifth of the UK population (c.10m people) living in rural areas, the importance of updating rural connectivity is clear from an equality and levelling up perspective. But how else can these communities benefit from better technology solutions? We brought together key project leads from rural testbeds and trials, to discuss the lessons they have learned from their work with rural communities across the country, and their top tips.

Wider economic benefits

Part of the discussion focused on how rural connectivity endeavours can be looked at in a wider sense to support the initial proposal or business case.  This is about far more than just deploying 5G to an area.

Increased connectivity for local farming or tourism businesses brings additional benefits of increasing income and/or investment in that region, leveraging employment opportunities and helping ensure young people stay local, inputting into the economy, and showcasing their commitment to the area.

The impact of  creating five jobs for an SME in a rural area, for instance, is far greater than creating ten jobs for a multinational company.  It also brings proportionately more value to the local economy, keeping people local rather than travelling into an urban centre for work, retaining spending, creating wealth and working to alleviate poverty in that area.

In theory, those SMEs could also be better off financially with more suitable council tax, rates and rent, versus being forced to move into an urban area to recruit and do business. 

Boosting Local Tourism

Considering how tourism businesses can get more value from rural connectivity, 5G Connected Forest’s visitor survey showed that visitors using their AR experience spent on average two hours longer visiting tourist sites, and spent more, with 91% saying they would return and recommend to others.

The draw of 5G-enabled tourist attractions and experiences has a clear ripple effect into the local economy, with tourists spending more at hospitality and retail sites, among others, and visiting more local places during an extended stay.

Additionally, out of the 5G Connected Forest project came the Nottinghamshire 5G Careers Programme – bringing together regional 5G connected companies across sectors to generate local jobs – which has now worked with more than 1,000 students in the county.

The key advice from our conversations was to think outside your specific sector, consider how multiple use cases can be stacked together to create a more compelling business case, and follow through in terms of helping the wider community understand how they get economic value from 5G connectivity.

Working to Level Up

If we want to deliver on the promise to not leave people behind, connectivity has a key role to play and rural authorities and communities can benefit from partnering with other organisations and sectors to facilitate fresh thinking and approaches. Conversations between MNOs and local authorities around specific requirements and private/public network options should be had up front, but consider who else could bring value to planning and strategy conversations.

In the case of 5G Wales Unlocked, there were four use cases across two local authorities, with one benefit from a governmental perspective being the ability to think more strategically about connectivity – combining community value with engagement with academia, tech and other businesses. 

The project deployed 5G in two specific towns but a high-level benefit from the project was that BT and EE then went on to ‘join the dots’, building out the deployment across Raglan and Ebbw Vale. BT said that this was a direct consequence of the 5G Wales Unlocked project, giving an arc across SE Wales and brought wider benefits to the region.

Realistically speaking, this kind of upgrading and infilling may not always be achievable, however, having conversations with local authorities and MNOs about strategic rollout plans could have a local impact – potentially linking smaller pockets of innovation in rural areas with urban areas, bringing better connectivity to more people than initially proposed. It also might be valuable to look beyond council boundaries and consider economic or community boundaries instead.  This may mean bringing multiple rural communities or local authorities together to engage with industry, presenting a more attractive proposition to the private sector.

Reducing social isolation

Whether helping older residents stay in touch with family and friends, helping young people tackle mental health challenges, or bringing together online community groups, better connectivity in rural areas has a multitude of benefits to help eradicate isolation.

Young people, especially, living in rural or remote areas can feel socially isolated, potentially contributing to stress, anxiety or depression. Better connectivity can help them interact with friends and peers, find jobs and - importantly - the ability to keep up with school work using more online tools (see also Levelling Up, above).

This can be perfectly illustrated by resident living in North Yorkshire, who benefited from 5G connectivity delivered by the MANY project and started doing an online exercise class subscribed during lockdown:

“I couldn’t go to the gym and in lockdown it was a nightmare because it was buffering, I’d be like jumping around and she’d keep stopping – it was a nightmare. So, now [with 5G], I never get any buffering, it’s straight in, straight on and 45 minutes of exercise.”  

Quantifying such things can be challenging in traditional business case models but trying to articulate the social value of connectivity can help to change the way you’re approaching investment decisions.  

Use relevant advocates for buy-in

Of course, many of these benefits can only be realised if beneficiaries fully understand 5G’s potential. When it comes to coaching and training the end user, the overwhelming advice was to get sector specific.

When tackling questions such as ‘Why should I care about this tech in my job?’ 5G RuralDorset partnered with Wessex Internet, who are rooted in farmers and agriculture in Dorset. They had great success in engaging farmers and having relevant conversations, as the farming community knew them and were prepared to sit down and listen. It is about the credibility and authority of the people doing the final mile ‘sell in’; they will engage if they know the person.

Equally in rural healthcare settings – a remote care home, for instance – finding the right type of person to storytell and help get the tangible benefits of the technology across is paramount. This probably means that a local authority or technical lead won’t be the best person for the job. Instead, use someone with a nursing background or on-the-ground experience, to talk to the end users of the technology in a voice and tone they recognise.

What are your options?

When you begin a rural connectivity project, go in with an open mind. There are benefits and drawbacks to every partner and technology choice, and no two circumstances should be compared – you need to have open conversations with MNOs or private network operators based on your project’s activity and potential requirements.

Due to their scale and reach, MNOs have fixed commercial models, and rural areas may find that smaller enterprises are worth exploring because they can potentially be more agile with changes, and flexible to specific project long- and short-term aims.  5G RuralDorset found this to be true in their dealings with Wessex Internet.  Similarly, considering social investment funds can be a good option to raise funds; such investment routes are typically far more open to considering longer-term financial models.  Some communities may even decide to go down the route of building and deploying their own networks and the 5G New Thinking project has developed a toolkit full of practical tools and guidance to help facilitate that journey.

Also consider uplink and downlink. The focus of public mobile networks is on downlink – great for connecting communities who want better 5G connectivity to stream information or content. Yet, if you are looking to send lots of data up to a server for analysis, a private network model and architecture becomes much more interesting as a choice.

Whoever you decide to work with, remember to think wider and plan for the long term – have you built in suitable room for changes and potential growth of the project? Have you considered the size of the backhaul; is it enough to manage the use cases? What are the possible near-term expansions and amends? Discuss those and futureproof the project at the beginning.

Finally, consider investigating match funding from neighbouring local authorities or contacting potential ‘anchor tenancies’ – one core customer who may provide the commercials needed for the MNO to invest. 

Conclusion

The 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme has provided a unique opportunity to test and explore the full value of 5G within rural communities. Along the way inevitably, mistakes are made, lessons are learned and the tips and insights shared here should help other rural projects to undertake their 5G deployment journey in a collaborative and insight-led fashion.

For more tips, guides and insights around how to deploy 5G in rural areas, visit our How To deploy 5G in places page.

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