A unique project to empower rural and poorly connected communities to build their own commercially viable and sustainable 5G wireless networks has been announced.

Strathclyde is the principal partner in the 5G New Thinking consortium led by technology firm Cisco and run in partnership with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Diverse partners

With community and civic partners in the Orkney Islands, Borderlands and Northern Ireland, the project 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.

Only 66% of the UK landmass is being served by all four UK mobile network operators (MNOs) and 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.

Mobile connectivity in the UK has been reliant to date on mobile network operators to purchase exclusive licences for access to spectrum and they design, build, own, and operate their own networks. 

Shared spectrum

In 2019, Ofcom changed its policy on spectrum sharing to develop a more open and accessible spectrum market. The 5G New Thinking project will help by providing a practical how-to guide for rural communities looking to capitalise on this opportunity and invest in local connectivity.

By making this guidance widely available, 5G New Thinking 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.

David Meads, Chief Executive, Cisco UK & Ireland said:

Our findings with 5G RuralFirst revealed that over a ten year period, the UK’s rural economy could grow by an additional £17 billion 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, said: “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 conclude in 2022.