Rural 5G solutions increase opportunity for everyone
- Orkney trials show viability of locally managed approach to achieve 5G connectivity
Imagine fast, secure, and reliable internet – no matter where you live. For many rural communities in Scotland struggling to connect to the internet, this is a stretch. With the knowledge that poor connectivity is no longer acceptable as we rely on it for business enterprise, schooling and connecting with families, on the Orkney Islands, the Scotland 5G Centre rural testbed worked alongside the 5G New Thinking project deploying new 5G technologies to demonstrate that improved mobile coverage, and broadband wireless networks can be implemented by communities and installed, operated, and managed by local providers.
The Scotland 5G Centre project, working alongside the StrathSDR team at University of Strathclyde, and key partners Cisco, and local partners CloudNet IT Solutions and SHEFA, first created a testbed in Loch Lomondside to demonstrate, test, and evaluate new 5G technologies utilising shared spectrum. Thereafter this technology and know-how was transferred to Orkney where 5G networks were built and deployed, and new operational and community models developed and tested.
Orkney was used as the test case as it provides its own set of unique challenges to connectivity. The cluster of 20 islands stretches over a great distance and sit where the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. They have the slowest fixed broadband speed of any local area authority in the UK. Over a quarter of households were unable to achieve the minimum speed to meet an average household’s digital needs – USO speeds of 10mb/s. 100% of residents on half of the islands cannot achieve this minimum, with no prospect of fixed broadband roll-out.
More than 83% of Orkney’s roads also do not have 4G services from all mobile network operators and nearly a quarter of Orkney’s premises have either no 4G service or no choice of operator.
The collaborators on the Orkney trials also demonstrated the viability and engineering required to implement a single mobile network that could provide neutral host support to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and provide Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband services to the community. The project also looked at ways to offer sufficient capacity for the number of smartphones and handsets and premises across the islands.
The team created two networks in underserved and remote areas in Westray and Flotta using a combination of seven base stations with 20MHz cells working on various available shared and test radio frequency bands. Where available, backhaul was setup either as microwave and fibre backhaul links, and for future setups, recent tests at the Loch Lomondside testbed indicate the viability of LEO (low earth orbit) satellites, such as Starlink, for backhaul, bringing true ‘middle of nowhere’ 5G networks to reality.
The combined solution also suggests a new localised sharing framework allowing access to vacant parts of the radio spectrum, as well as using the Ofcom designated ‘shared access’ radio frequencies across various mobile bands.
This connectivity afforded by new 5G ecosystems will offer opportunities to encourage partners to invest in and address the needs and aspirations of businesses in rural locations in Scotland. The Orkney project ensures that rural communities will not be left behind as they take advantage of next generation 5G via self-provision and the building of community owned networks.