UK government introduces £200m scheme to boost industrial and rural 5G

Scheme will help key areas seize the potential of modern technology, in particular 5G networks, and fulfil government’s commitment to ‘level-up’ infrastructure across the UK

The UK government has made its first move in its commitment to make “radical” improvements on 5G coverage in rural areas and help business to take advantage of the new infrastructure.

In October 2019, the government launched a £1.3bn scheme, dubbed the Shared Rural Network (SRN), which proposed to wipe “not-spots” from the map, providing what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.

Now digital secretary Oliver Dowden has announced a £200m investment in testbeds and trials across the country to explore new ways that 5G can boost business growth and productivity, improve the lives of people in rural areas and maximise the productivity benefits of new technologies.

As part of an overall £65m package of government-funded trials to help rural areas seize the potential of modern technology and fulfil the government commitment to “level-up” infrastructure across the UK, nine projects across the country will receive a share of £35m from the government’s rural and industrial 5G competitions. In addition, the government has introduced a new £30m open competition – 5G Create – that will look at how 5G can create new opportunities in industries such as film, TV, video games, logistics and tourism.

The £30m Rural Connected Communities (RCC) competition will involve seven 5G research and development projects across the UK – five in England, one in Wales and one in Scotland, with plans to expand into Northern Ireland. Test sites will be set up in Yorkshire, Gwent, Monmouthshire, Orkney, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Dorset, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

More than £5m of funding will be awarded to two industrial projects, led by Ford Motor Company and Zeetta Networks, to test the benefits of using 5G to boost productivity in the manufacturing sector.

UK tech company Zeetta will lead 5G-ENCODE, based at Bristol’s National Composites Centre, which will experiment with how 5G can improve the design and manufacture of composite materials, including through augmented reality and the remote monitoring of multiple factories at once. Meanwhile, Vodafone Business and Ford will lead a consortium trialling how 5G mobile private networks can improve the manufacture of electric vehicles at two sites in Essex and Cambridge.

“We are determined to make the UK a world leader in 5G and deliver on our promise to improve connections for people and businesses across the country,” said Dowden. “Today we are announcing new funding to seize the new opportunities this technology will offer us. This includes seeing how it could create new jobs in the countryside, make businesses more productive, and unleash even more ideas in our cutting-edge creative industries.” 

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Specific examples of where the funding will go include Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, which will see the development of apps to transform the experience of visitors to the fabled location. Users will see Robin Hood telling the history of the medieval forest via virtual and augmented reality on 5G networks. New robotic environmental management will also be tested alongside live monitoring of the health of Sherwood Forest to preserve the site for future generations.

“There is no better opportunity to trial 5G in a forest setting anywhere else in the UK – not just for the area’s geography, but for its rich and fascinating history,” said Kay Cutts, leader of Nottinghamshire County Council. “I see this project as the start of a journey that will truly see Nottinghamshire on the regional, national and international tourism and environment management maps, as well as providing us with the opportunity to build the digital skills and opportunities of our residents and businesses.”

Funding will also go to 5G trials in air and sea search and rescue in Dorset to help save lives using terrestrial and satellite connectivity. This project will also trial 5G connectivity for remote farms to track crop growth, monitor livestock and reduce water pollution.

The trials will also support the government’s ambition to diversify the supply chain for digital infrastructure in the UK, namely excluding technology from companies such as Huawei from the core of 5G networks and restrict its use to radio access networks. The government stressed that none of the winning projects, or future projects from 5G Create, will use equipment from high-risk suppliers.

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