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Surrey University 5GIC project explores rural not-spots

A whitepaper published by the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre reveals how 5G could work in tandem with existing technology to meet the needs of rural users

The University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) has published a new whitepaper exploring issues around universal mobile network coverage and the reach and reliability of future 5G mobile networks in rural and urban not-spots, parts of the country where a strong mobile signal cannot always be guaranteed.

The report, Meeting the challenge of “universal” coverage, reach and reliability in the coming 5G era, identified and explored challenges affecting rural mobile coverage, and suggested a vision of how 5G and existing network technology could work together to deliver appropriate resources to meet demand.

Experts at 5GIC, a government and industry-funded programme based at the University of Surrey’s Guildford campus, worked alongside industry partners at BT, EE, Real Wireless and Telefónica, to produce the research.

“5G will be expected to deliver universal coverage, but in order to do this, we need to not necessarily build a faster or denser network, but a smarter network,” said report author Tim Brown of 5GIC.

“With the advent of 5G, users will want to hear impressive headline speeds, as this is how previous generations such as 4G have been marketed, but in reality, speed is overly focused on the urban user.”

5GIC head Rahim Tafazolli said future network providers would have to give users the impression – if not always the reality – of infinite network capacity by delivering a response to network demand that he described as “always sufficient”.

“This involves building a smart network that can handle basic demands, such as 999 calls from the most remote locations, to the delivery of reliable networks to villages and hamlets in an economically viable manner,” said Tafazolli.

The resulting paper explored several means by which these challenges could be addressed, including redesigned base stations, spectrum resourcing, and even smartphone design. For example, snap-on external antennae could boost signal reception for users.

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“Our paper explores seemingly simple answers to these difficult challenges, such as building higher masts to overcome obstructions such as trees and improved quality of the radio in mobile devices,” said Brown. “Where trees are of comparable heights to masts, coverage can be reduced by as much as 70% and this is the source of many of the rural coverage issues we see today.

“However, we must work with the public and authorities to ensure there is a balance between technology and landscape. This can be met with creative design that delivers what mobile users need, while retaining the personality of our countryside. The mobile device is becoming increasingly complex, with more radios and antennas packed into a small space, but there are clear examples of how this compromises coverage.”

Brown made the case for more investment in small cells and personal base stations, which are already seen by many as a key element of future 5G networks, and introduced the concept of ‘meadowcells’ – small cell developments originally intended for urban areas that can be repurposed and adapted to cover hamlets and villages.

The whitepaper sets out the business case for investment in new small cell, ‘metrocell’ and ‘personal base station’ technologies for rural environments. It explores how new ‘meadowcells’ (small cell developments originally intended for dense urban areas) can be adapted to provide small community coverage for hamlets and villages.

“Studies show that just a 9% increase in coverage equates to $1tn increase in worldwide GDP,” said Tafazolli. “These figures show that the business case for combating rural ‘not-spots’ makes sense, and it is now our job to realise these challenges and help to deliver a global 5G standard that will ensure access for all.”

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