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Project to empower rural and poorly connected communities to build their own 5G wireless networks announced

A first-of-its kind project to empower rural and poorly connected communities to build their own 5G wireless networks has been announced today.

The project, titled 5G New Thinking, will be led by Cisco with principal partner University of Strathclyde, alongside the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and community and civic partners in the Orkney, Borderlands and Northern Ireland. It 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.

Currently, only 66 per cent of the UK is being served by all four UK mobile network operators 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.

To date, mobile connectivity in the UK has relied on mobile network operators to purchase exclusive licences for access to spectrum; and they design, build, own, and operate their own networks.  In 2019, Ofcom changed its policy on spectrum sharing to develop a more open and accessible spectrum market; one that acts as a platform for innovation, 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 will help by providing a practical how-to guide for rural communities looking to capitalise on this opportunity and invest in local connectivity. By developing this replicable and flexible approach, the project aims to help poorly connected communities build commercially sustainable, next generation networks using 5G technologies.

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.

Chief Executive, Cisco UK & Ireland, David Meads, said: “Our findings with 5G RuralFirst revealed that over a ten-year period, the UK’s rural economy could grow by an additional £17 bn 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 mobile network operators 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 to conclude in 2022.