Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

5G's biggest benefits will arrive where you'd least expect them

5G comes with the promise of faster speeds, but often only for city dwellers and urban businesses. But what if the technology could change the game for remote communities as well?

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Rural areas, some of which are still struggling to catch 4G signals, could bring huge value to the economy, provided that they are equipped with the means to modernise.   

Image: Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Getty Images

A peninsula on the south coast of England, complete with dramatic cliffs, marshy lands and thatched inns, isn't exactly where you'd expect to find next-generation mobile connectivity. Yet for the past few months, residents in the Purbecks, one of the most rural parts of Dorset in England, have been able to connect for the first time to a public 5G network.

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Built by Vodafone, the network was deployed as part of the 5G RuralDorset project, which was launched to explore the possibilities that 5G might unlock in an area that has historically been forgotten by network providers. 

And in the Purbecks, which was previously known as a 'not-spot', meaning that there was no 4G mobile coverage at all, the arrival of 5G speeds was something of a shock, to say the least.  

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It is hoped that the network can be used next year for the region's Camp Bestival event, for example, not only to deliver better connectivity for festival-goers, but also to add brand-new augmented- and virtual-reality experiences to the program.

The network is also being tapped for fixed wireless access (FWA), in which 5G is used to provide high-speed home broadband to residents, without the need to roll out the infrastructure and road-digging that typically comes with fixed fibre lines, which are particularly challenging to bring to remote areas.

Colin Wood, project manager for the rural connected communities project at Dorset Council, explain that the unprecedented speeds enabled by 5G are already unlocking new opportunities in the area.

One use case is assisted home living, which is enabled by connected IoT sensors spread throughout a vulnerable person's house that warn emergency services when something unexpected happens, and would never be possible without appropriate connectivity. Assisted living devices, says Wood, in turn mean that residents can stay in their own homes for longer -- improving their comfort, but also cutting the costs associated with social care. 

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Even more generally, Wood says that having a reliable network in the region is critical to the success of rural Dorset. "If people can run businesses from here, work from home here, access the health services they need without having to go to towns and cities, we need to get this stuff right," Wood tells ZDNet.

The digital divide in the UK is still stubbornly real. According to a recent report, up to 9% of the UK is still a not-spot, with the proportion jumping to 20% in Scotland.  

There are 1.6 million properties across the country that are unable to access 'superfast' broadband, which provide speeds of 30Mbps or higher. Most of these are unsurprisingly located in remote areas: while 97% of premises in urban areas have access to superfast broadband, the number goes down to 80% of premises in rural zones.

The problem is not UK-specific. In the US, for example, figures show that the majority (83%) of rural Americans have access to internet download speeds of 25Mbps or more -- but that still leaves several millions of citizens lacking a decent connection. 

And during the past two years, the divide has been felt even more acutely: work, education and health all suddenly switched online as the COVID-19 pandemic caused national lockdowns, meaning that those struggling with unreliable connectivity fell even further behind.

This is why governments have committed to deploying faster speeds to areas that are harder to reach, and 5G has been pitched as a potential solution to reach those objectives. The UK government has pledged to spend £5 billion ($7 billion) on bringing next-generation connectivity to underserved areas, which will partly rely on 5G networks. And in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established a "5G Fund for Rural America", which comes with a $9 billion budget to bring 5G broadband services to the country's most remote communities. 

This might seem counterintuitive. The wonders of 5G are often associated to the network's use of a new type of signal located in the high end of the spectrum, known as millimetre wave (mmWave). MmWave signals come with extremely high throughput and low latency, but they are also very low-range and cannot travel long distances -- which is why they are better suited to densely populated urban areas, rather than large rural zones where people live far apart. 

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Having a reliable network in the region is critical to the success of rural Dorset.   

Image: IoTSG

But for all the benefits that mmWave is expected to bring about, 5G also operates new signals in the low- and mid-band radio spectrums. Although less impressive than high-band signals, those frequencies still move data several times faster than 4G, while also having very low latency -- and they can be beamed from towers that cover a wide area.

In the US, for example, telecoms company T-Mobile launched a standalone 5G network in the lower frequencies last year, a move that triggered a sharp increase in 5G availability in both urban and rural areas. The company says that 5G coverage in remote zones grew from 24.5% to 33.3% in just a few months.

That is not to say that 5G is the magical solution to not-spots, and that residents in remote areas who were never able to get mobile connectivity should expect next-generation speeds anytime soon. Even in the mid- and low-band spectrum, delivering 5G to the most sparsely populated areas is still challenging. As governments' large multi-billion-dollar budgets indicate, the process will require heavy investment, which is very unlikely to come purely from private sector operators.

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Case in point: the 5G-enabled broadband deployed in rural Dorset is part of an £8 million ($11 million) initiative, of which £4.8 million ($6.6 million) was funded by the government. 

"Overall, 5G is likely to have a role in providing these fixed services in rural areas, but the extent to which it is implemented is hard to generalise, and different countries are likely to have different outcomes," Andrew Daly, principal at telecoms consulting group Analysys Mason, tells ZDNet.

"In very, very rural areas, building large masts to provide fixed 5G services will not be cost effective, and other technologies such as satellite broadband may be most suitable," he continues. 

And yet those faster mobile networks have the potential to bring a huge economic boost to communities that were previously underserved. Research carried out by Analysys Mason for Ericsson and Qualcomm on the effect of 5G on European GDP forecast that the largest impact of the technology, if it were to be widely deployed, would stem from the creation of 'smart rural' clusters. The net benefit of those clusters, the analysts found, could reach €55 billion ($65 billion) across the continent. 

This is why organisations based in remote parts of the world are increasingly investing their efforts in proving the commercial benefits that can be achieved by enabling the digital transformation of rural areas via 5G.

On the remote Norwegian island of Gjerdinga, for example, fishermen from the Sinkaberg Hansen fish farm have partnered with Intel, Nokia and local network provider Telenor to deploy a private 5G network that helps the farmers better manage their one million salmon.

Telenor built a 5G fixed wireless access service in the mid and low bands, which was used to connect an underwater fish-monitoring system based on subsea cameras equipped with various sensors. In addition to capturing high-definition video of the fish, the cameras also measure oxygen, salinity and sea temperature -- and all of this data is sent over the 5G network to be assessed by AI-enabled analytics in real time.

The cameras, for example, can pick up how many feed pellets dropped by the fishermen fail to be caught by the fish, so that feeding volumes can be automatically adjusted. With feeding processes representing 50% of the farm's budget, Gjerdinga's fishermen have estimated that the technology could enable savings of almost $6 million per year.  

Analytics are also used to detect health anomalies such as wounds or bites. Each fish is identified with a unique fingerprint that is picked up by the cameras, to monitor growth over time and determine the best time to harvest, providing the farmers with round-the-clock insights of what's going on in the fish cages.

Previously, explains Jeni Panhorst, vice president of the data platforms group at Intel, fishermen would have had to sail ships out to the offshore cages to physically monitor various indicators, before coming back to shore to process the data and make decisions about feeding cycles, health interventions or harvesting times. 

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In the past few years, this process has partly been automated -- but the jump to 5G is enabling real-time insights that were never possible before. "5G networks feature lower latency, higher capacity and increased bandwidth," Panhorst tells ZDNet. "In this case, Telenor's 5G service provides the bandwidth needed for real-time data transfers from the fish cages to the edge server, where edge compute and networking technology processes the data to provide analytics with no lag time." 

For Panhorst, the Gjerdinga use case is reflective of the potential that private 5G networks have to transform rural businesses, and particularly farming. Precision agriculture is emerging as a hot use case for private 5G, she argues, with faster networks being key to the processing of large amounts of data generated by sensor networks for crops.  

Back in Dorset, Wood agrees. Alongside bringing 5G speeds in the form of broadband to residents and businesses on the English peninsula, 5G Rural Dorset is also experimenting with various private 5G networks that were deployed to respond to specific needs in the region.  

One of them, similar to the Gjerdinga farm, uses a private 5G network for connected farming, this time in the form of small autonomous robots that can assess, at a per-plant scale, whether they are dealing with a crop or a weed. The data is passed over to another machine that comes along to zap weeds with electricity, instead of using polluting herbicides.

5G-enabled, real-time analytics are also used to assess the health of cattle in one of the region's milking parlours, and have been fitted onto drones to assess the weather conditions when spraying crops.  

And in a one-of-a-kind application, 5G RuralDorset has set out to connect the world-famous Jurassic Coast, which despite its spectacular views can also be extremely dangerous for uninformed tourists. A low-band 5G network has been deployed to cover a stretch of the coastline to support connected signage with information such as tide times, cliff erosion, water conditions or currents. Sensors can also pick up footfall in tourist hotspots to avoid overcrowding when it might become dangerous. 

Wood explains that the organisation has been brainstorming clever ways to deploy the network to reduce costs. Low-profile, 5G-enabled offshore buoys have been deployed, for example, to communicate key data and regular updates about sea conditions. The buoy is also used to monitor tide height, wave height, frequency, strength and direction - information that is in turn transferred to the connected signs along the coast for visitors to keep track of.

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Low-profile, 5G-enabled offshore buoys have been deployed, for example, to communicate key data and regular updates about sea conditions. 

Image: DCMS

"We're trying to prove the business case for bringing 5G to rural communities," says Wood. "There is an accepted wisdom that urban areas where the population density is the highest are the places that most need the latest connectivity. We would argue that perhaps isn't right, because the places that need the updated connectivity are those that currently don't have it." 

Pushing for 5G deployments that can serve a single use case is never going to make sense commercially, continues Wood. But as 5G RuralDorset is demonstrating, faster networks can find a wide range of applications, even in areas that are sparsely populated. Those economic arguments are now slowly stacking up, and Wood is confident that 5G will eventually be a "game-changer" in his area.

The impact of the trials can already be felt, according to Wood, who says that new companies have moved to some of the sites where the organisation is testing faster networks, at the same time bringing highly-skilled and better-paid jobs that contribute to the region's overall development.

Across all industries, 5G is expected to bring a new level of connectivity that could transform business outcomes by bringing organisations into the digital age. But one of the biggest opportunities for transformation seemingly lies outside of our smart, connected cities.  

Rural areas, some of which are still struggling to catch 4G signals, could bring huge value to the economy, provided that they are equipped with the means to modernise. It certainly seems too good an opportunity for governments to miss.