With its rugged coastlines, unpredictable weather, and far-flung towns and villages, Scotland’s Orkney Islands might seem an unlikely setting for cutting-edge technologies. But the region has become a test bed for everything from underwater data centers to wind, tidal, and wave power.
Lately, however, it’s 5G technologies that have been making waves of a different kind.
That’s all thanks to an initiative called 5G RuralFirst. Built around a consortium spearheaded by Cisco and principal partner the University of Strathclyde, it’s been showcasing the potential for 5G to connect the unconnected and drive growth in even the most remote places.
“Our mission is all about identifying practical 5G use cases in rural areas,” said Nick Chrissos of Cisco, “to demonstrate the value of investing in the digital infrastructure serving rural businesses and communities for the benefit of the entire country.”
Like many rural regions, Orkney makes an important, though often overlooked contribution to the wider economy. In Scotland, for example, 27 percent of the economy (in gross value add), is generated from rural areas such as Orkney. Yet a lack of connectivity prevents key industries like salmon farming, agriculture, renewable energy, and tourism from realizing the benefits of transformative technologies.
“We have patchy mobile phone coverage and the slowest broadband speeds in the U.K.,” said Shona Croy, the strategic advisor for renewables and connectivity for the Orkney Islands Council. “So we can’t make use of technology to lower the cost of the services we deliver and improve the connectivity of businesses and individuals.”
“We’re looking at a new way of thinking,” said Greig Paul of the University of Strathclyde, “a new way of envisioning how we’ve built the network, how to deploy a network, and how a network like this would actually be funded and paid for and make revenue.”
With additional partners that include national and local government agencies, the BBC, ISPs like CloudNet, the Agri-EPI Centre, and the Scottish Futures Trust, the consortium has been working to demonstrate 5G’s superior bandwidth, speed, and range.
At the same time, a parallel initiative in the Southern UK regions of Somerset and Shropshire is exploring 5G’s potential to transform agriculture.
While most 5G discussions focus on more densely packed urban areas, 5G RuralFirst aims to drive new growth in rural areas — for service providers and enterprises alike.
“There are business opportunities here that the service providers are not looking at, or don’t know about,” said Stephen Speirs of Cisco. “The salmon industry is the biggest food export out of the UK. And it’s all based around these islands and lochs in Scotland. Agriculture, again, it’s big across the UK. And the farms are getting increasing opportunity with autonomous tractors, connected cows, that kind of stuff. But all that needs connectivity, and they weren’t getting it.”
Out at Sea with the IoT
Like wind generators, salmon farms are often located far from shore. And they demand intricate monitoring of water conditions, parasites, weather, and even physical security. Internet of Things (IoT) solutions promise great improvements in efficiency and productivity. If, that is, data can be transferred from the offshore barges quickly and at high volume.
“We can actually take that data straight off the device back to the headquarters of the salmon farm,” said Greg Whitton, of CloudNet, an ISP provider and key 5G RuralFirst partner. “Because we’ve got 15 to 20 kilometers of range on that [with LoRa technology], and it doesn’t need expensive satellite or expensive microwave lengths to actually provide that data.”
Speed and cost concerns also factor into the farming initiative in the South, with everything from connected cows and soil sensors to autonomous drones and tractors. Not to mention, 5G’s capacity to combine disparate solutions and data streams into a single, user-friendly source for real-time insights.
One example is Precision Decisions, a 5G RuralFirst partner that used multiple proprietary radio technologies when it first developed autonomous tractor solutions. With 5G, they can simplify those solutions under one umbrella.
Any technology that increases efficiency is good news for farmers, who are constantly forced to make do with fewer resources.
In the case of connected cows, smart collars track vital signs and connect with automated milking systems. However, with 5G, the need for expensive and time-consuming monitoring is replaced by cloud-based analysis with fast 5G uploads. For example, low-latency 5G relays allow an aerial drone to direct an autonomous tractor to spray precise areas of a field, based on real-time analysis of the soil and crops.
By simplifying solutions and enabling increased processing at the “edge” of the network, 5G opens up possibilities for new business models.
As Speirs explained, the connected cow solution can be priced per cow, as opposed to the consitituent parts (application, comms link, etc), the model that would have been used in the past.
Making the Business Case
It all comes down to new ways of thinking about the economic opportunities in rural regions.
“If this were operated by a network operator,” said Greig Paul, “the business models could be in place whereby rather than having that big capital outlay you’d be able to pay for it on a per-head basis for your cattle or on a per-device basis for the number of automatic gates or milking-machines. They’d be able to move onto a subscription style service contract that would also cover the maintenance.”
Scaling such solutions would also be faster, simpler, and cheaper, as 5G takes compute and complexity off the farm and into the cloud. As a result, Spears predicts that productivity benefits for farmers would be substantial, offsetting initial investments.
All participants hope that their successes, challenges, and best practices will inspire other rural regions.
In particular, they cited the importance of the partner ecosystem. Speirs said that Cisco’s Customer Experience Organization was in effect the “lead architect,” building the core network and helping to organize the consortium, while the University of Strathclyde led the development of the radio network. Yet he was quick to credit the contributions of all the players, citing the importance of the consortium model, especially for rural technology projects.
“Getting all these people together is so important,” added Paul, “you need the consortium in order to deliver this project. At the same time, it’s also making sure that things don’t grow out of control because fundamentally these projects have to deliver measurable results. It’s really important that you make sure you’re not seeing mission creep.”
Of course, improving the lives of people is at the heart of the project. The initiative has explored solutions around telemedicine, education, public safety, and even augmented reality experiences for tourists at remote sites. The BBC, meanwhile, is using 5G to improve the reach and quality of terrestrial radio broadcasts.
“Connectivity should not be a reason that people can’t live where they want to live and carry out their work and contribute,” said Croy, “because otherwise you’re going to lose population from the rural areas. Rural areas should not be seen as a cozy backwater. It’s a very active location, and the individuals living there often highly contribute towards society.”
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