A look into the Rural Connected Communities Project
Key insights and considerations from the DCMS workshops that focused on the upcoming project with the aim of building the business case for rural mobile connectivity...
Over the course of June, DCMS held five workshops across the UK to help define what the Rural Connected Communities project will involve and how this project can be most effective.
Over the previous year we have seen six successful testbeds through the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme that explored the benefits and challenges of deploying 5G technologies. Along with this programme, the Urban Connected Communities project helped inform the development of policy and regulation to support 5G deployment, choosing the West Midlands to develop a large-scale 5G pilot across the region, with hubs in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton.
DCMS stated that the UK was the 54th country to launch 4G (back in 2012) but we have increased our position in 5G, being the 5th country to launch the new network.
Though we have seen successful deployments and examples in the UCC, Government are now focusing on the rural areas. The current state of play shows that rural connectivity is still behind urban:
- 9% of UK landmass has no good 4G coverage from any operator – this has improved from 21% a year ago but rural areas are still badly affected
- Ofcom estimates that there are 39,000 homes and businesses that cannot access a decent fixed broadband services of get 4G coverage
- In urban, good 4G data services (at least 2Mbit/s) to 83% of premises, but in rural, it is only 41%
- Areas affected include not just remote rural not-spots but also semi-rural areas with poor or patchy coverage
With increasing reliance on connectivity, network availability and reliability are becoming even more important – otherwise there is a growing urban/rural divide.
DCMS also explained the barriers to rural deployment, ranging from historic reasons, sites in rural areas and the focus on MNO’s:
- Restrictions on antenna heights (15m only)
- Prioritising environment protections over infrastructure deployment (e.g. forced tree-planning near masts)
- Less common now – but resistance from local communities to infrastructure deployment (NIMBYs)
Building and maintaining sites in rural areas:
- Robust “carrier-grade” solutions are needed, which mean lengthy opex maintenance costs
- Large distances, challenging terrain and extreme weather affects both capex and opex
Mobile Network Operators:
- Higher costs that urban for backhaul and installations – with extra dig costs for backhaul alone often very costly
- Lower return on investment because of lower population density in rural sites
- Other factors like OPEX, power and community resistance
DCMS then shared the RCC project objectives for those potential bidders:
- Capital grant funding for 4-6 projects (there could be more of less depending on the bids) across the UK, in a range of rural settings with demonstrable connectivity challenges
- Projects will build the business case and evidence base for rural mobile connectivity (including 5G) by:
- Identifying and testing demand-led coverage models
- Testing a range of innovate technical solutions and commercial approaches; and
- Building and providing demand through new 5G sector-specific use cases
Government also expect the projects to:
- Contribute to the local economy and community;
- Support the development of the 5G ecosystem in the UK
- Be commercially sustainable beyond the period of grant funding
- Build on other initiatives e.g. the Phase 1 projects
- Comply with State Aid regulations and public procurement rules; and
- Include consortium match funding
Where? Areas for testbeds and trials
- A contiguous rural area – or multiple, separate rural coverage areas, with a strong rationale for why they are interlinked
- Meeting the relevant rural designation applied by the project’s host country (England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland)
- Demonstrating evidence of existing zero or poor mobile coverage, using publicly available data and any further supporting data
- In score are a variety of rural locations types, including remote, sparsely populated areas with primarily natural or agricultural land use, to more populous, semi-rural areas
Who? Bidding Consortia
DCMS would like to see a wide range of possible solutions, given the variety of rural locations, topologies and challenges.
Bidding consortia can be led by (and include):
- Any type of organization from the public, private, third or academic sectors, providing that organisation has the capability to lead the delivery of the project
Subject to the outcome of these workshops, the aim for DCMS is to launch an 8-week competition in the summer and projects are to mobilise this calendar year. Funding for the project will also be available until March 2022.
More details of the consortia and bidding expectations will be circulated soon. However, the above provides an insight into what Government are looking for when companies are considering bidding for the project. techUK looks forward to finding out more about the project and welcomes the ongoing support by the Government to help ensure the UK is a 5G leader.
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