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Cisco-led consortium eyes up rural UK 5G opportunities

Part government-funded communications project develops first-of-its-kind deployment toolkit for next-generation networks using 5G technologies to empower rural and poorly connected communities

A consortium led by Cisco, with principal partner University of Strathclyde, has announced what it said is a first-of-its kind project, in an effort to empower rural and poorly connected communities to build their own commercially viable and sustainable 5G wireless networks.

The project, titled 5G New Thinking, will be run in partnership with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and with community and civic partners in the Orkney Islands, Borderlands and Northern Ireland.

It brings together diverse partners to develop the tools, processes and business models that mean rural and poorly connected communities can rapidly establish next-generation and 5G connectivity for local benefit.

The partners include Federated Wireless, the BBC, CloudNet, Orkney Islands Council, The Borderlands Councils, Rural Community Network, Pure, Leapfrog, The Scotland 5G Centre, Neutral Wireless, Foroya Tele, Shefa, University of Surrey 5GIC, University of Glasgow, Bogons, RuralFirst, Agri Epi-Centre and Zoetis.

5G New Thinking is seeking to address the problem whereby only two-thirds of the UK landmass is being served by all four UK mobile network operators – there are still 610,000 homes and businesses that don’t receive adequate broadband service, as investment predominantly focuses on areas with higher population density.

In addition, the consortium said that, to date, mobile connectivity in the UK has relied on mobile network operators (MNOs) to purchase exclusive licences for access to spectrum and then design, build, own, and operate their own networks. 

The members said that they are taking advantage of a policy change on spectrum sharing by Ofcom to develop a more open and accessible spectrum market, reducing the cost of access to high-quality spectrum in regional areas and opening opportunities for new endeavours to address rural connectivity.

The project aims to help by providing a practical how-to guide for rural communities looking to capitalise on this opportunity and invest in local connectivity. With its approach, the project aims to help poorly connected communities build commercially sustainable, next-generation networks using 5G technologies.

“Our findings with 5G RuralFirst revealed that over a 10-year period, the UK’s rural economy could grow by an additional £17bn if good quality 5G services were accessible,”  said Cisco’s UK and Ireland chief executive, David Meads.

“We believe that by taking advantage of neutral-hosting technologies, fixed wireless access and spectrum sharing, we will be able to allow third parties – including local businesses and communities – to build and own radio infrastructure, as well as work with MNOs to reduce costs and make rural coverage commercially sustainable.”

The project is expected to go live later in 2020 and to conclude in 2022. By making the guidance widely available, 5G New Thinking will also aim to stimulate local investment in rural connectivity across the UK. This is built on the learnings from trials undertaken on the DCMS 5G Trials and Testbed programme phase one project.

“We are making sure the UK’s rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age and are investing record amounts to improve connectivity in the least connected parts of the country,” added Matt Warman, minister for digital infrastructure.

“5G New Thinking is part of our £30m programme to help the countryside capitalise on new ways of using next-generation 5G technology and I look forward to seeing how rural communities will benefit.”

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