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Tackling rural areas – 5G or not 5G?

As 5G coverage continues it early roll-out across the UK with the promise of faster speeds and more efficient user experience, there are still areas which are expected to be excluded from the benefits for a good while yet. 

For many years, rural areas within the UK have faced unreliable connectivity in comparison to urban locations. Statistics provided by Ofcom show that 9% of the UK, which primarily consists of rural areas, still have problems with access to 4G, and a whole 4G hasn’t been fully yet exploited.

A key reason for this, as identified by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) suggests that the urban-rural divide is due to rural areas typically having a lower population density, which means that there are higher costs for mobile network operators because of the lower return on investment in the required technological infrastructures. However, DCMS have also expressed concerns that leaving rural areas behind – both in terms of full fibre and 5G – could stunt economic growth and communications as many of the UK’s socio-economic activity are now taking place online.

Trials for Rural 5G 

In the recent years it appears the government has increased its priority to provide solutions for rural 5G, one being the provision of funding for a range of 5G trials. One high profile trial is Cisco’s 5G RuralFirst project, which created testbeds for 5G across three remote sites; Orkney, Shropshire and Somerset. A number of 5G strategies were tested which included 5G cloud core network, dynamic spectrum sharing, 5G radio access technology, agri-tech, broadcast and industrial internet of things. 

The DCMS are also actively involved with aiding the advancement of 5G coverage in rural areas, as demonstrated by the current 5G Rural Connected Communities project. In order to help develop a business care for investment in rural connectivity they are also funding up to ten pioneering use-cases.

This is a great opportunity for LEPs, Combined Authorities and lead councils to pull together ideas for 5G testbeds and grab funding, now from the latest Create 5G challenge launched in Mar-20.

Satellites to Help 5G Coverage

In 2019, Ofcom established airwaves which included a frequency band that can support 5G, which previously was unavailable. This development is helpful for business and communities in rural areas who can apply for access to airwaves which are licensed by MNOs, although not currently used by them.

However, there are still barriers to the technology being made commercially viable but a possible alternative is high-altitude pseudo satellites (HAPS). There is hope that these satellites when deployed in a stratosphere at an altitude of 20km, will deliver connectivity to rural, costal and mountainous regions.

To explore their use, satellites are currently being trialled in the UK. An ongoing trial by OneWeb is aiming to launch a constellation of 650 satellites to enable high-speed global connectivity. Vodafone plans to do something similar using this tech too.

However, the technology does present challenges in regards to its cost, capacity and availability of services, which may require further research into the technical and regulatory conditions that are needed to further develop the technology. 

Is 5G the solution?

Although 5G coverage is showing many benefits, Ofcom have shared that particularly in rural areas, it may not always be the best solution due to the complexity of connectivity in those areas and therefore 5G may not always be necessary. 

Instead, there is a focus on addressing the lack of 4G coverage. The government has backed a shared rural network which involves all the main MNOs and will include a shared network of new and existing phone masts, which is expected to provide 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.  

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