The deployment of 5G in urban environments to help enable smart cities and other benefits is grabbing a lot of attention. And, as with previous 3G and 4G deployments, the initial rollouts of 5G are expected to occur primarily in more densely populated cities with rural areas lagging behind. But, is this the right approach? To boost UK digital infrastructure, 5G should not be restricted to only large metropolitan areas. In fact, in rural areas, applications enabled by 5G – such as Internet of Things (IoT) – have the potential to deliver digital transformation to many critical sectors such as agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and energy. If towns in the countryside are to benefit from 5G, then they need to be supported with the right infrastructure to ensure there is access to the network performance that 5G promises to deliver.
A growing population: 5G goes beyond the city
With the previous rollout of 4G, some rural areas experienced a limited service but 5G has the potential to improve this if the right network infrastructure is implemented to support widespread adoption. Last year, less than half (41 per cent) of rural premises had complete 4G coverage and in some remote parts, there was no coverage at all according to Ofcom, which shows there is a need to support network connectivity with improved infrastructure. 5G has the potential to bring a range of benefits beyond the appeal of smart cities and driverless cars. For example, agriculture is an important source of income and some of world’s largest businesses are reliant on this sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, it will be particularly important for the two billion people who derive their livelihoods from it. UK operators could use this as an opportunity to expand networks to include the countryside as there is a huge potential for innovation, and customers will want to embrace the high speed and low latency that 5G promises. 5G could transform production lines for crops and livestock, enabling farmers with sensors, drones, smart collars, and other key IoT devices to collect business critical data and automate farming processes to enable improved harvest yields.
Larger cities have sufficient subscriber densities that help justify new 5G deployments. However, challenges such as how to ensure sufficient coverage to entice subscribers to transition to new 5G handsets still must be addressed and are more prominent in rural and developing areas. Further, it is widely known that the short range of 5G cells, operating at new and higher frequencies, remains a challenge to providing broad signal coverage. In rural environments, a lower population density coupled with providing broad 5G coverage, will prove to be a challenge from a business case perspective. However, it is just as important for rural areas to experience 5G if we are to continue narrowing – or even closing – the digital divide among citizens of the UK.
Investing in the UK’s 5G success
Barclays predicted that the UK’s manufacturing sector could see a revenue growth of £2 billion by 2025, if 5G is rolled out successfully. The UK government recognised the need to pursue 5G innovation more widely and launched a £30 million competition to spark a tech revolution in countryside communities to help with the rollout of 5G. To enable fibre availability and the rollout of high-speed 5G cell sites across the UK, the government has set an ambitious target of 15 million premises connected by 2027, with the aim of providing the majority of the UK population with universal 5G coverage by 2033. 5G has the potential to help accelerate hyperlocal economies and push forward innovation and modernisation, improving healthcare, education and even public safety.
Preparing for 5G
The move from 4G to 5G is going to be a multi-year journey, but with the right strategy, operators will better serve their customers while achieving a lower overall cost structure. 5G is comprised of several technologies and will complement previous versions of wireless mobile systems. Initial 5G rollouts will also utilise the existing 4G fixed network for wireless radio access and transport. To achieve a full 5G rollout, operators must also upgrade and adapt the wireline infrastructure part of their end-to-end network by deploying a flexible and virtualised transport network spectrum and transport from base stations to the core network. If the wireline network is not able to process the request from end-to-end, then performance and the resulting quality of experience will undoubtedly suffer, reducing the attraction of 5G to potential customers. To accelerate 5G wireless services, operators will (initially) leverage existing 4G wireline infrastructure, which can also benefit rural areas with existing 4G coverage.
Smart country, smart future
By taking advantage of 5G beyond the city, operators can help their customers across the country – no matter where they are based – to achieve the best possible service. 5G can bring a range of significant benefits that impact almost every sector of our lives, and operators have the chance to lay the necessary foundation to make it all possible. In addition, 5G has the potential to drive new revenue opportunities for operators as new use cases start to be developed, ultimately developing a smart country from the city to the countryside.
Jamie Jefferies, VP and General Manager of EMEA, Ciena