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Government unlocks £30m for 5G rural testbeds

The government has launched a £30m competition to test innovative rural uses of 5G technology, as it faces pressure to close the UK’s digital divide.

Ofcom revealed in December that just 41 per cent of rural offices and homes have complete 4G coverage, compared to 83 per cent of urban premises.

Network operators have traditionally been reluctant to fund cutting-edge infrastructure in less populated areas due to the low return on investment.

But ministers hope the Rural Connected Communities competition will help to prove the commercial viability of rural 5G deployments with 10 new use-cases across the UK.

A consortium led by Cisco has already rolled out the ultra-fast network technology in the Orkney Islands for remote monitoring of salmon fisheries and wind farms. The government wants the competition to pave the way for a number of similar schemes.

It is also launching a consultation on revising English planning laws for mobile masts. Under the proposals, larger masts capable of powering several networks at once would be permitted, and existing masts could be upgraded to 5G without prior approval.

The digital and culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, said in a statement: “In modern Britain people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead.”

Julian David, the chief executive of trade association techUK, added: “As important as the financial support for innovative uses for 5G is, the recognition that the way planning rules are implemented is a big factor in the level of connectivity. I am pleased the Government is now proposing to simplify those rules as they apply to mobile masts in England and urges them to move swiftly to make these changes.”

The deadline for applications to the Rural Connected Communities competition is 25 October and the winning projects will be announced before the end of the year.