In an age of self-driving cars and robot chefs, basic internet access in rural Britain is an issue that continues to plague politicians and mobile providers alike. Ofcom’s 2018 annual report found that only 41 per cent of rural premises have 4G coverage, meaning that over half of the UK’s countryside is without decent data speeds, something that people living in urban areas would struggle to function without (81 per cent of urban premises have “complete” 4G coverage).
While many living rurally are fighting to join city dwellers in the fourth generation of mobile technology, the fifth one is just around the corner. 5G coverage could offer speeds of 1Gb/s (1000Mbit/s) meaning a HD movie could be downloaded in 10 seconds over a 5G network, compared to the 4G download time of somewhere around 10 minutes, but most people living in the UK will be waiting a while for these download speeds. The government has pledged its intention to roll out 5G nationwide by 2027, but the CBI recently published a report warning that the digital economy could be placed at risk without significant action to make a 5G coverage, and that deadline, a reality.
“Every other generation of mobile phone telephony has achieved the same problem,” observes Dez O’Connor, business development manager at Cisco. “We don’t actually address the problem of how to push that radio connectivity and coverage into the most remote rural areas, and that’s still the case today.” Will that change with 5G?
O’Connor has come on board with 5G RuralFirst, a government-backed test bed which is trying to make sure that rural Britain doesn’t get left behind when the 5G revolution eventually takes hold. It’s hard, he admits, to make the business case for getting superfast internet to five people living in the deepest British countryside, so his team is trying to demonstrate the potential of connecting not just humans, but things. “Even though there might not be that many people in rural areas, there will be more and more things that need to be connected,” he explains. 5G RuralFirst is putting together “a portfolio of use cases” for 5G rural coverage, showing improvements in crop growth, tracking livestock and renewable energy facilities that will “drive a business model” which will make a significant contribution to the UK economy.
And what are the mobile providers planning for their rural customers? In September, Vodafone chief technology officer Scott Petty announced that a select number of rural locations would be among the first to receive Vodafone 5G coverage. Speaking to NS Tech, however, a company spokesman claimed that “for any meaningful rural coverage to happen with 5G, BT has to install fibre cables first”. Although 5G can be deployed with different types of network infrastructure, including Li-Fi and radio technology, fibre optic cabling has been prioritised by the government’s 5G strategy. Open Reach, the arm of BT which owns the majority of the UK cable network, has begun a process of modernisation to replace old copper cables with fibre, but it is in its early stages; currently only around five per cent of UK premises have fibre coverage.
Is the company just passing the buck? Not necessarily, says O’Connor. “Service providers are doing the most that they can within this competitive regime. They can’t do it all on their own all the time and this project is there to help … We’re trying to provide data and information back to [them].”
Vodafone is basing its rural strategy around one of the key strengths of 5G, which is that network speeds remain high even when data usage in a particular area increases dramatically. Brits staying in the UK for their holidays has caused the provider to see a “huge increase” in the amount of data being sent across its network in places like Cornwall and the Lake District during the holiday seasons; in these spots Vodafone “will be either doing our own fibre instalment or pushing BT” to do so.
In fact, in rural locations without many residents, upgrading customers from 4G to 5G is not a priority for the provider. “Where you’ve got small dwellings or hamlets that currently have 4G,” argued the Vodafone spokesman, “it doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense to upgrade them to 5G; there’s not so many users so they will be still be at a similar speed – there won’t be much difference between the performance.”
Regardless of 5G, the company’s most pressing challenge is delivering a good service to rural areas: “We are focused on trying to improve coverage in these areas and giving them a decent voice but also data experience as well.” For the 59 per cent of rural residents who are lacking 4G coverage, 5G probably seems a distant – and unhelpful – concept.
Augusta Riddy is a special projects writer at the New Statesman