The need for better rural connectivity…and the projects delivering it

The need for enhanced digital connectivity in rural areas hasn’t been far from the headlines recently. Prompted by updated government stats around rural businesses, we have been reminded of the important role that these enterprises play in our economy. A hive of industry, from homeworkers and sole traders, to rural business parks, to agriculture – the one thing they all have in common is the need for fast, reliable broadband.

Autonomous tractors and farmland drones, digital tools for small businesses, anywhere, anytime access and radio direct to phones are just some of the tremendous opportunities for industry and rural communities in the UK, yet they are hindered by one thing. Connectivity.

For the public sector there’s another issue – the need to migrate citizens to online services is more acute than ever as the financial squeeze takes hold. Driving the rural economy also brings obvious benefits to more rural local authorities, and can eases some of the pressures on our cities.

 

Addressing the digital divide

It’s well documented that there is a digital divide across the UK. With much of the focus being put into metro and urban networks where the richer pickings are. Rural areas are often overlooked for commercial reasons, such as fewer customers spread over larger areas, often coupled with difficult terrain, making it more expensive to build.

The good news for beleaguered rural organisations unable to connect is that the government acknowledges the need to do more. It says that improved digital connectivity will bring a range of benefits to rural communities, including:

  • better access to online public services
  • improved social interaction with family and friends
  • effective online presence meaning that local businesses can extend their reach and better compete with other
  • businesses, or in the case of tourism businesses, better attract visitors to the local area
  • better access to skills and training which can lead to further local employment opportunities that deliver
  • improved productivity and can boost the wider local economy.

 

A higher power

One initiative announced recently by the government involved church spires, which will be used to boost digital connectivity in rural areas following an agreement between the Government and the Church of England.

Overall, 65% of Anglican churches and 66% of parishes in England are in rural areas and their locations at the heart of their communities mean they are often well placed to address connectivity and coverage problems. The use of these churches, as well as other church properties and farm buildings, to host digital infrastructure will, it’s hoped, help to deliver the Government’s commitment for everyone to get good quality mobile connectivity where they live, work and travel.

 

The potential of 5G

It’s also hoped that 5G technology can be used 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.

Geographically, only 63% of the UK has mobile data coverage from all of the four main providers, 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. Yet, the business case for investment in crucial connectivity 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 a 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, a network of 32 organisations includes some of the most innovative start-ups, 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.

Key use cases are:

– 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 £112bn 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.

Nick Chrissos, Director of Innovation at Cisco Europe says: “The UK currently ranks fifth 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.”

 

FTTP Kitemark

Another option being encouraged by the Local Government Association (LGA) is ensuring housing developers must adopt council proposals for a new Fibre to the Premises Kitemark.

Analysis by thinkbroadband estimates that only 32 per cent of properties built in rural England in 2017 are connected by FTTP broadband. Seventeen per cent of 2017 rural new builds are unable to achieve the Government’s broadband universal service obligation’s minimum download speed of 10Mbps and upload speed of 1Mbps which it aims to deliver by 2020.

While the Government’s new draft of the National Planning Policy Framework aims to help councils encourage developers to provide FTTP connections to existing and new developments it does not give them powers to hold developers to account.

The LGA said introducing a new FTTP Kitemark is a simple, common-sense proposal which will make it clear to the public whether or not their new home will have a fully future-proofed internet connection.

Mark Hawthorne, Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board and a Gloucestershire County councillor, said: “Connecting our rural residents to future-proofed, fast and reliable broadband is vital to helping them get on in life and benefit from the advantages that decent digital connectivity can bring.

“The standard of digital connectivity we provide to our new build homes should reflect our national ambition to roll out world-class digital infrastructure across the country. Residents will no longer tolerate digital connectivity taking a backseat in developers’ plans.

“We call on the Government, homebuilders and the broadband industry to work with us and develop the details of this proposal and give homebuyers the confidence to invest in a new home, knowing they won’t be stuck in the digital slow lane.”

Only time will tell whether the above projects and plans will come to fruition and actually deliver the changes the rural economy needs. For the good of the economy, they and the other projects floating around, certainly need to.

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