A Salmon farm in Scapa Flow, off the coast of Orkney, or a windfarm on one of the island’s hillsides may not be the most obvious locations to demonstrate the potential of 5G.

In these remote, hard-to-reach locations, connectivity of any kind (fixed or mobile) is difficult to come by, while the investment case for deploying networks remains constrained by the low number of potential customers relative to urban centres.

But 5G Rural First, a UK government-backed consortium of 30 partner organisations, is on a mission to demonstrate such areas hold enormous potential to boost the national economy and digital inclusion, with the next-generation technology being key to delivering fresh approaches which could unlock the potential of rural areas.

Led by vendor Cisco and the University of Strathclyde, the group counts big names including Nokia and the Telecom Infra Project among its ranks, along with a brace of other UK universities and local councils.

The business case
Dez O’Connor, business development manager at Cisco (pictured, right), explained the group established test-beds in three rural locations across the UK to highlight the potential of rural industries including farming and tourism, with trials exploring “new models to earn money in rural centres and then new models to actually save money and build networks in a smarter way”.

On Orkney, the focus was on aquaculture, green energy, and improving access for residents and visitors.

At Scottish Sea Farms’ site in Scapa Flow, for example, IoT was a key aspect, with sensors monitoring key aspects relating to the health of salmon including water quality and temperature, along with the security of cages and feeding systems.

Likewise on Hammars Hill Energy’s windfarm, where sensors provide early warning of potentially damaging weather systems.

In a presentation, Scottish Sea Farms explained farmed salmon is the UK’s largest food export, offering a clear contribution to the national economy. The local economy is also boosted, with this company supporting around 300 jobs directly and indirectly (it was just one of several aquaculture businesses dotted around the islands).

The windfarm, meanwhile, offers obvious environmental benefits in terms of clean energy production.

Tourism may be more about boosting local economies, but the business case on Orkney appears compelling. The islands are a tourist hot-spot, with cruise ships alone potentially bringing 10,000 visitors per day.

But Orkney Islands councillor Shona Croy (pictured, right) said even making a phone call remains difficult due to what she politely described as fluctuating mobile signals, which inevitably has a knock-on effect when it comes to mobile broadband.

Croy noted connectivity is today “seen as a basic service” across the world. And we’re not just talking about access to simple online entertainment or commerce: with governments pushing to enable digital services for citizens, this lack of connectivity impacts Orcadians’ ability to access key services: “it affects how you deliver service and it affects how visitors, and indeed the local population, receive it as well”, she explained.

The volume of tourists means booking a table for lunch is essential. But it also presents an opportunity to use technology to improve the visitor experience.

Part of the 5G Rural First trials on Orkney included a smart mobility solution to handle traffic management, offering real-time information on simple things like how busy car parks are at key attractions, while offering tourist chiefs data on the most popular sites.

Solid connectivity opens the potential for attractions to use mobile apps and services to add value, for example offering avatars on smartphones to guide visitors, offering in-depth information and engaging interactive features.

Why 5G?
Of course, most of what is detailed above could be delivered using 4G technology, so why focus on the next-generation?

O’Connor explained deployments of previous generations of mobile technology tended to “do great innovations and push the boundaries of speed and capacity”, but typically overlooked coverage, meaning 5G is an opportunity to do things differently.

Spectrum management is one element in this. The 5G Rural First trials have explored different means of managing and deploying spectrum “whether that’s dynamic spectrum or lightly licensed spectrum”, he said. In turn, this could lead to new approaches to constructing networks, for example disaggregating “the entirety of the network and build the new type of network like a cloud, so essentially software radio, disaggregated functionality in the core, in the radio, in the transport itself”.

Different approaches to network construction could completely change “the economics” and “the dimensions of how quickly you can change and deploy these things”, he added.

Dynamic spectrum sharing, an approach UK regulator Ofcom is exploring for the 5G era, could enable rural areas to tap allocations not fully employed by operators to construct their own networks, helping to overcome current economic barriers.

Croy noted rural communities haven’t been able to develop their own solutions “because we can’t use the spectrum,” explaining this is something “we’re certainly keen to look at and see whether that actually provides a rural, cost-effective solution”.

She emphasised such approaches would not be an attempt to compete with operators, instead offering an opportunity to work together to deliver connectivity which benefits everyone: “And that’s the next phase for me. And that’s more exciting to me as a non-technologist, that we actually have a market solution.”

For those of us living in rural communities, the test-beds and trial services certainly offer food for thought, highlighting the next-generation of mobile technology could offer not only a step-change in terms of connectivity, but also an entirely different business case which would work for the industry, nations and individuals alike.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.