Expectations of 5G remain very high despite its embryonic nature, with many assuming it will deliver the infrastructure network that will lead us all into the promised land of digital transformation. This makes it easy to make the case for urban investment and, as a result, rural areas in Wales will yet again fall further behind. For many in Wales, the need for 5G is not immediate but improved network connectivity and performance is! Supporting the use of affordable wireless coverage to reduce the digital divide across our rural areas is therefore paramount.
If the need to rush towards 5G investment in rural communities remains unclear, the need for improved 4G before mass 5G deployment in those areas does not. The Wales 5G Advisory Group and its ability to influence the maximum benefits of next generation connectivity will prove critical over the next 12 months.
Delivering on any ambition in the area of 5G for Wales will require collaboration between the communications industry and regulators, such as Ofcom UK. This is one of the key tenets of the Advisory Group which met for the second time on Friday 16 November at Innovation Point.
Inviting Ofcom Wales to help us shape the Wales 5G Programme was therefore a natural step in building the expertise of the advisory team. Their insight and knowledge will hugely help us to better advise stakeholders as to the planned release of different types of spectrum bands for 5G, and access this spectrum for innovative uses. This will undoubtedly help to create benefits for people and businesses and expand the role of wireless connectivity within the economy and society of Wales.
During the meeting, Eleanor Marks1 was able to share her priorities as Director of Ofcom Wales, including boosting broadband speeds in rural areas, at a time when communications services have never been so important. Ofcom Wales will have a critical role to play within the advisory group, alongside Government and industry, as both a facilitator linking to UK Ofcom policy and working across different sectors, as well as enabling the development and rollout of 5G and unlocking its benefits.
The road to 5G may well continue to be rushed and will definitely continue to be commercially challenging to deploy in rural areas - where demand tends to be lower but desire just as high as that in urban areas. Indeed, speaking recently at Vodafone’s ‘Future Ready’ event the company’s CTO, Scott Petty, confirmed that the operator would roll out 5G early on in rural areas where it is seeing increased data demand in those areas.
So, why the rush? Some experts say that we cannot afford to let digital divide concerns slow down deployment and if, as a consequence, rural areas are left further behind, so be it. But others, such as Vodafone, are now beginning to realise the digital innovation potential of the rural connected community; which further supports our ambition to ensure there are a range of solutions available for 5G rural sites to connect to core telecoms networks and thereby drive the strategic direction for 5G in Wales. Yes, there will be challenges but if we can leverage 5G into rural areas sooner rather than later, its capacity will allow us to improve citizens’ and businesses’ access to digital services and, perhaps, just perhaps, improve the digital divide and the country’s economy at the same time.
1Eleanor Marks was appointed as Director Wales, Ofcom, in September 2018. Her previous roles at the Welsh Government include Director of Communities & Tackling Poverty, Regional Director of Economic Development, and Programme Director at the Welsh European Funding Office. She is Welsh-speaking, a member of the Institute of Directors and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).