UK government funded testbed, 5G RuralFirst, to help the UK take a leading position in 5G, enabling some of the UK’s disconnected, remote and rural communities to be the first to benefit from the technology
Autonomous tractors and farmland drones, digital tools for small businesses and radio to your phones. All of which present tremendous opportunity for industry and rural communities in the UK, yet they are hindered by one thing. Connectivity. More specifically, a lack of secure, reliable mobile connectivity.
Geographically, only 63% of the UK has mobile data coverage from all of the four main providers (Ofcom), yet recent research highlights that increased usage of digital technologies in rural communities represents tens of billions of pounds’ worth of opportunity for the UK economy.
Still, today the business case for investment in connectivity crucial to make these digital technologies viable is challenged; it relies on outdated economic models for return on investment (ROI) that are unable to pre-empt the benefit of new technologies, whether for the nation or for business.
This is the challenge that 5G RuralFirst aims to help solve. It was announced by the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as a co-innovation project between industry, government and academia as part of the recent 5G testbed and trial competition to help position the UK as a global leader in 5G.
As such, it will explore the benefits of 5G for rural communities and industries like agriculture, broadcasting, and utilities. It will also look to address the barriers to, and build the business case for, investment in 5G rural deployment.
With Cisco as the named lead, and principal partner the University of Strathclyde, the network of 32 organisations includes some of the most innovative startups, tech leaders and academic institutions in the UK.
The project will aim to create a complete end-to-end rural 5G testbed system for trials of new wireless and networking technologies, spectrum sharing, new applications and services; stimulating new business models, all with a focus on testing and demonstrating innovative approaches for ensuring that 5G connectivity is accessible and affordable in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Testbeds and trials for the project will primarily be based on the Orkney islands to the very north of Scotland, and the farmlands of Somerset and Shropshire. The locations will be linked to the distributed Cisco® 5G cloud platform at DataVita’s Tier III data centre facility near Glasgow and will collaborate with the wider 5G UK ecosystem with the University of Surrey 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC).
The project will look to support and inform the development of the UK’s 5G eco-system so that it is able to address the needs and aspirations of communities and businesses in rural locations in ways that 4G, 3G, and 2G have not been able to do.
Key use cases:
•Broadcast radio delivered over 5G with the BBC – the BBC believes internet-based delivery will become increasingly important to broadcasting. It will use the 5G testbed on Orkney to trial the capabilities of 5G to deliver traditional radio and new forms of BBC audio content over these new technologies.
•Smart farming in partnership with Agri-EPI Centre – 72% of the UK’s area is utilised for agricultural production, and the agri-food sector is an important contributor to UK GVA (over £112B per annum) . The trial will help provide significant opportunities to transform UK agriculture into a smart, high-tech industry, through innovations in sensors & remote diagnostics, data collection, UAVs (drones), wider precision farming techniques and autonomous vehicles.
•IoT in Utilities and Environment Management – Electrical utilities and energy providers (wind, wave and solar), water companies, environmental monitoring, oil and gas industries – all have requirements for both general reliable data communications alongside low bit-rate, but high reliability and high security data communications for IoT (internet of things) in very remote areas. This will be addressed via network slicing and network edge data aggregation for 5G networks, alongside coverage trials and investigation.
•Dynamic Shared Spectrum development and trial – this potentially disruptive work led by the University of Strathclyde and others seeks to demonstrate the applicability of dynamic and shared spectrum technologies for 5G communications in rural areas, coupled with the deployment of low cost software-defined radio technologies, both with the intention of lowering the cost of future rural 5G communications deployment and presenting the opportunity for network self-provisioning.
Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries said: “New technology has the potential to transform business and society and we’re determined nowhere in the UK will be left behind by a 5G future. These testbeds will show how our rural communities can harness the power of this revolution in connectivity, bringing benefits across agriculture, industry and wider society.”
Nick Chrissos, Director of Innovation, Cisco Europe said: “The UK currently ranks 5th in the world when it comes to our readiness to embrace digital. We have the ambition, the innovative heritage and the expert ecosystems to shape the UK’s digital future, but to do so we have to address fundamental issues like making internet connectivity work for everyone. 5G RuralFirst looks to help close the digital divide in the UK. To uncover the opportunities and challenges faced in 5G deployment, and to ensure that it can do what other generations have yet to. It’s not only about implementing the right technology in the right way. It’s about designing networking technology intelligently from the very start. Giving careful consideration to critical issues like security; which becomes even more complex when you are connecting everything from drones to autonomous tractors.”
Professor Bob Stewart of the Centre for White Space Communication at the University of Strathclyde said: “After a number of years trialling with TV White Space shared spectrum, we now see the very clear opportunity for future 5G mobile and wireless radios and networks to support and use shared and dynamic spectrum access technologies. Working with innovative radio manufacturers and spectrum database providers we see very clear opportunity for shared spectrum to work effectively alongside the services and coverage from current licensed mobile spectrum and unlicensed (Wi-Fi) spectrum”
Dave Ross, CEO, Agri-EPI Centre said: “As the UK centre for precision agriculture and engineering technology, we are delighted to be a strategic partner in 5G RuralFirst. The UK agricultural community is under pressure to produce more food, with less labour and less impact on the environment. Drones, autonomous vehicles, robotics and remote sensing and diagnostics will significantly change how we farm in the UK, but this innovation will only be possible if network connectivity in our rural areas is dramatically improved. Through a series of trials conducted by our 6 SME Agri-Tech partners, 5G RuralFirst will prove what would be possible in our agricultural sector and we hope will lead the way for investment and development in rural network connectivity and associated Agri-Tech services.”
Kieran Clifton, Director, Distribution & Business Development, BBC said: “The BBC is delighted to be part of the 5G RuralFirst project. We’re excited to be developing new ways to deliver both traditional radio and new forms of audio content around the UK and to help audiences get the best possible services in difficult to reach areas.”