56% of the landscape in the UK is rural with weak connectivity and geographically only 63% of the UK has mobile data coverage from all of the four main providers, say Ofcom. Creating sustainable business cases for rural areas which have less devices, less data and more infrastructure costs is difficult.
A new co-innovation project, 5G RuralFirst launched in 2018, links the private sector, government and academia to explore rural business opportunities enabled by 5G, within the areas of agriculture, broadcasting, and utilities. Part-funded by the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) as part of their wider 5G Testbed & Trial programme and UK-wide 5G strategy, key founders Cisco and the University of Strathclyde have been working alongside 27 other partners, including broadcast, technology and agricultural interests.
Working to create rural test-beds and trials for 5G wireless and mobile connectivity, the project is located across three main sites in the Orkney Islands, Shropshire, and Somerset, with the aim of creating and sharing new market, technology and application opportunities. The project is designed to promote long-term investment, encourage policymakers, regulators, mobile network operators and other service providers to see the partnership potential of 5G in rural areas and engage rural communities to see the benefit of the new technology at home, at work and in the great outdoors.
The main project elements include building a 5G cloud core network to provide improved levels of connectivity, greater capacity, reduced latencies and the faster sharing that is needed for technology and real-time use cases to run smoothly. The new technology will also allow operators to ‘slice’ the network dynamically into multiple virtual networks, making 5G more cost effective and commercially attractive to deploy and operate in rural areas – ultimately changing the way connectivity is currently deployed in rural areas across the UK.
The 5G networks will be deployed using 5G radio access technology to ensure high speeds and low latency. This is being trialled on the Orkney Islands, the second most poorly connected part of the UK, where only 20 of the total 70 islands are permanently inhabited.
The project will investigate the feasibility of dynamic spectrum sharing for 5G, a new model of spectrum management based on a dynamic access model instead of an ownership model. This allows sharing across the country, with licences for defined periods of time covering specific areas of the UK, to promote competition, encourage investment and the availability and use of high-speed data transfers throughout the country.
A specially developed Agritech programme will explore the use of technology in agriculture with the aim of improving efficiency, yield and ultimately profitability, a broadcast element will test the feasibility of 5G standards to provide a more efficient distribution mechanism for online broadcasting in association with the BBC and community and infrastructure tools will test a range of use cases in very remote environments to demonstrate and assess the benefits to local residents.
Nick Chrissos is Director of Innovation for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Cisco Systems, one of the key partners leading the project. He explains that the technology can be split into a few key elements.
On one side you have the access network with multiple spectrums, multiple bandwidths and a number of networks that we're bringing together. Behind that we have the 5G management system that connects everything into a single system and behind that, a fully virtualised core, based on the Cisco system, in order to create this slicing of the services.
Every step in the programme is based on available technology and available components, he explains, though the complete solution has never been deployed in this way before. “The use cases are very innovative and unique in the way we use the technology, but the entire system is put together with components we already have access to. We have been very ambitious in the use cases and in how we have used the technology, but we are making sure we are using technology that can be easily procured and replicated.”
A number of use cases have been developed, pioneering new approaches to the deployment of connectivity in rural locations and building more efficient business models for critical industries such as agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. Some of the most innovative cases include:
Connected cows: This innovative approach to farming allows cows to manage their own care, with the freedom to decide when to eat, when to go outside and when to be milked. Robots are used for milking and data patterns on everything from fertility cycles to eating habits are fed back to handlers through cow collar-mounted transponders.
Even at this early stage, excellent efficiencies have been recorded as Nick explains. “On a normal farm, cows will be milked twice a day. In our farm, the cows choose to be milked more often, which has translated into 2.7 times a day, giving an increased milk yield of 30%.”
A fun app based on the data, Me + Moo, is the world’s first 5G enabled connected cow app and allows users to follow their own selected cow from a 5G RuralFirst farm and receive daily updates on its progress.
Hands-free hectare: Giving the farmer the opportunity to be hands-off, the trial is exploring the use, value and benefit of autonomous tractors, controlled by drones in real time, and testing to see if it is possible to control autonomous systems via 5G.
AR tourist guides: Currently on test in the Orkney Islands, this project may be extended past the general project end date of March 2019 to allow for testing throughout the busy summer months when the islands’ population of 20,000 residents is given an enormous boost – the islands receive 340,000 tourists a year. Cisco worked with a US immersive technology company, who have produced content for film and TV, to build an augmented reality virtual tourist guide to showcase lesser known parts of the island to visitors.
Connectivity is provided on the ferries that bring the visitors to the island and the buses that drive them around, the app offers a range of four characters – all with Scottish accents – and there are 19 different locations for visitors to discover. It is, as Nick explains, a commercial model that is compatible with local industry and businesses as well as enhancing visitor experience, built not to showcase the technology of augmented reality but to showcase the impact of this type of technology in this specific area.
One of the main challenges for the project was the weather, Nick reveals. Working outdoors to install the hardware equipment in Orkney meant that everything had to be ready for November, with no more chance of outdoor work until February due to the high winds. A short project timescale – just 12 months – was a further challenge. “Luckily we had CloudNet, the local integrator on the islands who were also part of the project, and their role was to do all of the hands-on installation,” says Nick.
Introducing change to traditional communities can also be a sensitive issue and Nick explains how important it was to gather people’s views and opinions from the start. “We went through a whole range of issues in the last 12 months, getting right licences, putting them in the right place and talking to the communities. Having the Orkney Council and Somerset’s Agri-EPI centre as part of the consortium was crucial in getting local participants on board. We try to be as sensitive as possible and try to consider everybody's opinion before we do anything.”
The team have produced a video summarising the challenges of a rural 5G build.
Presenting all the innovations in one high tech package is critical in building the right businesses cases to show mobile network operators the benefits of deploying infrastructure in these rural areas. And this project, reveals Nick, is a major showcase, not only to show what can be achieved in the UK but also in rural communities around the world – “this is a flagship project”.
And, he confirms, for the technology companies involved – for Cisco, BT and the others – it’s now all about commercialisation. “We’ve done enough experiments, now we need to try scaling it up.”
Looking ahead, the signs are very positive for high impact 5G connectivity in rural areas. In fact, experts within the industry claim that rural locations could actually be easier to bring 5G coverage to. Jason Tofsky, Technology, Media and Telecom Group MD at Goldman Sachs, says that rural towns are easier to connect than built up cities because they lack the big buildings and other obstacles that can interfere with a 5G signal. So, in the coming age of 5G, it looks like the countryside won’t be left behind.
Words: Bernadette Fallon
5G RuralFirst At Mobile World Congress Barcelona
Published on 9th July 2019