New 5G group aims to empower rural NI areas with better connectivity

  • A new 5G consortium is beginning a project with the aim of empowering rural and poorly connected communities to build their own commercially viable and sustainable wireless 5G networks.

    The 5G New Thinking group is being led by global IT firm Cisco with principal partner, University of Strathclyde.

    A spokesperson for the initiative said that currently, only 66% of the UK landmass is being served by all four UK mobile network operators.

    There are still an estimated 610,000 homes and businesses that don’t receive “adequate broadband service as investment predominantly focuses on areas with higher population density.”

    To date, mobile connectivity in the UK has relied on mobile network operators (MNOs) to purchase exclusive licences for access to spectrum; and they design, build, own, and operate their own networks.

    RELATED: UK government to strip Huawei from 5G networks by 2027

    In 2019, Ofcom changed its policy on spectrum sharing 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.

    5G New Thinking aims to provide a practical how-to guide for rural communities looking to capitalise on this opportunity and invest in local connectivity.

    The group also aims to stimulate local investment in rural connectivity across the country, to close the rural digital divide. All of this is built on the learnings from trials undertaken as part of 5G RuralFirst, a Cisco-led DCMS 5G Trials and Testbed programme phase one project.

    RELATED: Calls for NI's tech community to combat children's 'tech poverty'

    In Northern Ireland, rural areas are defined as settlements with a population of 5000 or less, half the number used for rural classification in the rest of the UK. Almost 1.9m people now live in rural areas in NI.

    Average download speeds in Northern Ireland are 63Mbps in urban areas, falling by almost half to 35Mbps in rural locations. While only 1% of urban homes are unable to access a download speed of 10Mbps or more, this rises to 19% in rural areas, meaning one in five rural homes cannot access the internet with functional speeds. Only 61% of premises in Northern Ireland have good indoor 4G coverage from all four MNOs.

    RELATED: Addressing the digital divide

    David Meads, chief executive of Cisco UK & Ireland said: “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.

    “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.”

    Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman added: "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.

    "5G New Thinking is part of our £30 million 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."

    The project is expected to go live later in 2020 and to conclude in 2022.

    RELATED: Mobile industry warns against 'spread of baseless 5G coronavirus theories'

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

    Got a news-related tip you’d like to see covered on Sync NI? Email the editorial team for our consideration.

Share this story