UK 5G Research Funding announced for Rural Small Cell projects

CottageRural areas will benefit from £30 million of new UK Government funding announced recently. Under the guise of encouraging 5G, specific research and development projects have been given the stimulus to trial and evaluate small cell deployments which offer the potential to address the problem of poor rural coverage with the latest technology. Several UK and US companies are involved.

New money

The £65 million funding package comprised of three categories:

  1. £30 million for the Rural Connected Communities (RCC) competition shared between seven winning projects
  2. £5 million for two projects to test the benefits of 5G in the manufacturing sector
  3. £30 million for a new open competition called 5G Create, aimed at developing new uses for 5G In a variety of industries.

The seven RCC projects are spread throughout the country, with project funding for each ranging from £2.3 up to 5 million (approx. US$6.5 million).

  1. Mobile Access North Yorkshire
  2. West Mercia Rural 5G (Shropshire and Worcestershire)
  3. 5G Connected Forest (Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham)
  4. Multi-Operator Neutral Host (Wiltshire plus two other sites)
  5. 5G Rural Dorset
  6. 5G New Thinking (Orkney Islands, later elsewhere in Scotland, NI)
  7. Connected Communities in the Rural Economy (South East Wales)

This should be adequate to build, test and evaluate several reasonably sized rural networks in sparsely populated areas which have not so far been commercially viable or attractive to the mainstream network operators.

Mobile vs Fixed Wireless Access

There are separate initiatives to expand fixed broadband services throughout the UK. A new Ofcom rule from 1st March 2020 allows any UK resident to place an order for broadband and expect to be provided with at least 10Mbps regardless of location. The rule does allow for some exceptions in extreme cases (eg remote islands) where the costs are truly prohibitive, but the intention is to achieve very high levels of access. Public subsidies of up to £3,400 (approx US$4,000) are available.

Nonetheless, I could see some of these projects being more focussed on fixed wireless access to provide broadband in areas that currently have little or none. These could later be expanded to project wide area mobile service, but it is equally possible for the same system to serve both applications.

Access to Spectrum

The UK regulator, Ofcom, introduced some new rules in July 2019 regarding access to spectrum in areas which are not adequately served by the existing mainstream operators.

There are some small chunks of spectrum compatible with mobile phones and other devices not allocated to the mobile networks. These could support 2G and 4G, but the largest band (3.8 to 4.2) is not yet supported by any mainstream chipsets. 

There are also mechanisms to use spectrum that has been allocated to mobile operators but isn’t used – the exact areas where a lack of mobile phone signal is the problem. It seems to me that this is how any 5G spectrum (which in the UK is primarily 3.4 through 3.8GHz) would be made available.

An example of that method has been pioneered by Chalke Mobile in Dorset, which we visited in 2018 and is still in operation.

Participating vendors

Several small cell vendors will be involved, including those with an option to develop 5G technology. New players will no doubt emerge, such as Picocom, a fairly new UK startup involving several well known experts from Picochip. This was part of the team involved in the first dedicated small cell chipsets.

It’s not just UK businesses that are involved. US companies Federated Wireless and Cisco are partners in the 5G New Thinking project, and will create a “community toolkit” involving business models, neutral hosting and partnerships with mainstream operators.

However, it has been clarified that so-called “High Risk Vendors” (political codewords for Huawei and ZTE) are not to be involved in any of these government funded projects.

Summary

Good news to see some funding for innovation to address a real-world problem, where the commercial viability of serving rural communities has hampered more widespread rollout.

Whether this requires the use of 5G raather than just 4G to achieve its full potential seems to me to be somewhat debatable. There is additional costs such as requiring users to pay to upgrade their phones to the latest 5G capable devices. It’s also unclear to me whether rural sites like this will make full use of more expensive 5G advanced techniques such as MIMO and beam steering, but the option is there to do so.

We look forward to seeing the results of these projects and will report back on any that we visit in due course.

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