Posted 21 October 2021
5G New Thinking and Rural Community Network
Nigel McKinney has recently joined RCN to work on the 5G New Thinking project and below outlines some thoughts on the issues and future potential developments in connectivity and technology offer. Nigel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
If we weren’t already aware of the importance of digital technology and how its use is changing how we work, learn, shop and spend our leisure time, the last 12 months has really brought it to the fore and in doing so highlighted many inequalities in both access and use. A key one here is the urban / rural divide in terms of access to fast and reliable broadband and mobile telephone services.
Many of us who live in rural areas have had the frustration in the last year of trying to work at home with a poor broadband connection and also juggle supporting remote learning by children or trying to stay in contact with isolated and vulnerable family members. Many rural areas also still suffer from limited or no mobile telephone coverage.
The need for a good and reliable connection has moved beyond the frustration of not being able to watch on demand or catch up TV or stream music.
Advocating for the needs of people living in rural communities for good digital connectivity is something RCN has been engaged in for many years and last year RCN became a partner in a new project called 5G New Thinking. This project involves a consortium of 18 partners from the public, private and academic sectors all working together to find solutions to the digital divide in rural regions.
RCN Director Kate Clifford previously summarised the project and some of the possibilities in two blogs available here.
In the UK, communications services such as TV, radio, mobile telephones, broadband are regulated by OFCOM. We are fortunate that OFCOM carry out annual detailed reviews into the availability and capability of broadband and mobile services in Northern Ireland and in these highlight the work it is doing alongside government and communications companies to improve connectivity.
OFCOM’s Connected Nations 2020 Report for Northern Ireland which is available here
summarises the situation at the end of 2020. Whilst it reports significant progress and developments since 2019, a key conclusion for broadband is that
“Broadband services and speeds vary across Northern Ireland between urban and rural areas. As highlighted earlier, this is because properties in rural areas tend to be more dispersed and are more expensive to provide new, faster, fixed line broadband services to.”
And in respect of mobile coverage there remains a differential between urban and rural areas.
“However, there are differences in the level of choice available to customers in urban and rural areas. Ninety-two per cent of urban areas can get 4G coverage from all four operators, compared to 78% of rural areas.”
Significant initiatives, which have been widely reported in the media, to develop availability and capability in Northern Ireland are underway.
The Department for the Economy’s £165million Project Stratum, which has been awarded to the telecoms operator Fibrus, is currently being rolled out and will extend broadband infrastructure to 79,000 premises mostly in rural areas. This will utilise fibre optic connections, in what is known as Next Generation Access, promising greater reliability and speed.
The operators Virgin, BT Open Reach and Fibrus are also investing resources to bring fibre optic broadband to more customers.
On the mobile telephone side, OFCOM report
“Good 4G services from all four operators are available (outdoor) across 75% of the Northern Ireland landmass with voice services. Voice coverage is more extensive, covering 86% of the nation.”
There remains an urban/rural divide in mobile coverage, but government intends to deal with this in part through an initiative called the Shared Rural Network (SRN). This is part of the UK Mobile Programme and will see the government and Vodafone, O2, Three and EE jointly invest over £1 billion to increase 4G mobile coverage throughout the United Kingdom to 95% geographic coverage by the end of 2025. It is underpinned by a legally binding coverage commitment from each operator to have reached at least 90%, assessed in 2026.
There are also other local developments worth highlighting. All of our local Councils, apart from Belfast City Council, are in a consortium called Full Fibre NI. This consortium secured £15m of funding from the UK Department for Culture Media and Sport and has awarded a contract to Fibrus to connect public sector buildings in each council area with ultrafast fibre optic broadband. Furthermore the Derry City Deal Plan references digital connectivity via a Digital Enabling Infrastructure Programme which aims to focus on next generation technologies including 5G connectivity and rural connectivity in areas with poor or no broadband connectivity, future proofing connectivity and developing availability, speed, capacity and resilience to drive economic recovery and growth.
In Part 2 I will look briefly at some technological developments taking place in parallel to better connectivity and ask how rural communities should respond.