Rural UK users are skeptical about being able to access new 5G networks
As 5G networks continue to sweep across the world promising to bring a new era of connectivity to consumers and enterprise users, an important conversation around the future of rural connectivity has sparked. In the U.K., companies like Cisco are beginning to prioritize rural connectivity by focusing on rural-specific use cases for 5G. However, new research shows that 5G, despite what many believe, might not be the key to solving the U.K.’s rural connectivity challenges.
Bringing the latest technology in connectivity to rural areas often doesn’t make the most economic sense for network providers, because fewer people use a network in rural locations than in highly populated urban locations. This has left many rural communities with slow or no connectivity, often referred to as the urban/rural digital divide.
As Dez O’Connor, business development manager at Cisco explained, this problem is not new. “Every other generation of mobile phone telephony has achieved the same problem. 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,” said O’Connor.
But Cisco believes 5G will change that, due significantly to the advent of dynamic spectrum sharing. DSS allows for the optimization of the use of airwaves by enabling multiple categories of users to safely share the same frequency bands, creating opportunity for more network capacity while reducing cost and delay.
With the goal to prove to operators that investing in better rural connectivity has value, Cisco developed its 5G RuralFirst project, which seeks to establish efficient business models for operation in rural environments, such as agriculture, tourism, renewable energy and manufacturing.
“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],” O’Connor explained.
Cisco has been running a number of different 5G experiments in rural areas across the U.K., from agritech and industrial IoT in Shropshire and Somerset to radio broadcasting in the Orkney Islands. According to the company’s website, it hopes the project “will help avoid wasting unused 5G spectrum, unlock new opportunities for rural citizens and businesses, improve productivity and efficiency in rural industries, as well as benefit the wider UK economy.” Some of Cisco’s work in this area, along with other partners, specifically concerns the applicability of dynamic and shared spectrum technologies for 5G communications.
While Cisco has achieved success in a number of its 5G trials, recent research from uSwitch indicates that 5G will not solve Britain’s rural connectivity problems.
According to the research, a third of adult smartphone users still have trouble connecting to 4G at least once a week, and because 5G was initially rolled out in urban environments, only 28% of the U.K. will be covered by the next-generation network by the end of 2019. Due to factors like these, U.K. users are skeptical about being able to access new 5G networks, and as a result, uSwitch says it found that only one in seven phone users (14%) plans to upgrade to 5G in the next year, and only 19% believe it will improve connectivity.
Ernest Doku, mobile expert at uSwitch, commented that Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, reports that 66% of the UK has 4G coverage from major providers, but went on to explain that more than 23 million people still regularly struggle to connect to their 4G networks — often, simply because of a lack of capacity.
“The arrival of the next-generation infrastructure should help with some of the problems currently experienced by 4G users,” Doku added, “but this will not be an overnight solution, in particular as fewer than one in seven of us is planning to upgrade to 5G in the next year.”
Doku warned against using 5G to plug holes in existing network coverage. “The industry cannot use the launch of 5G as a band-aid to cover up the shortcomings of 4G,” he stated. “Providers must work with communities to improve connectivity, especially in rural areas, to prevent millions of people being left stranded on technology two generations out of date.”
It appears that a significant hinderance to the effectiveness to 5G networks in the rural U.K. will be user’s lack of confidence that operators and the government will provide true accessibility. Last week, however, Chancellor Sajid Javid acknowledged the rural connectivity crisis by announcing a £5 billion investment to support the roll-out of full-fiber, 5G and other gigabit-capable internet networks in the hardest to reach 20% of the country.