By: Stephen Speirs
It’s been a quick year so far and my follow up to part 1 of this blog is long overdue. Back in December last year, Cisco led a 30 partner consortium to enter a UK government competition, to design, build and run innovative 5G Testbed and Trial programs.
The government expected that consortia would enter, be industry-led and comprise a collaborative effort between industry, academia, and public sector. Out of (I understand) 21 entries, our project – which we named 5G RuralFirst – was announced in March 2018 by the UK Government as one of 6 winning entries! It was a very exciting competition process, including a group of us being called to the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) office in London to explain and defend our proposal.
Slicing the Rural Connectivity Business Case
Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, while 5G and IoT grabbed the attention, I noticed the occasional reference in some of the sessions to the challenges of rural connectivity, and “connecting the unconnected”. With some 40% of the world’s population unable to access the internet, this will be a key challenge for the industry for the coming years. However at this conference, the prevailing logic was more along the lines of “we know this is a problem, we really need to do something about this”. While there are initiatives around this, the pace needs to be accelerated. One terrific example is the “Connect Americans Now” initiative for the USA being led by Microsoft. This aims to deliver innovative connectivity solutions, such as TV whitespace broadband, to tackle the rural digital divide in the USA. I was, therefore, particularly delighted when Cisco stepped up to lead the 5G RuralFirst team, with the aim to shine light on new thinking on some of the UK’s rural connectivity challenges.
In the 5G RuralFirst team, we believe that the solutions to this will involve new thinking in business models, new service innovation, technologies and cost reduction, public and private sector investment, and regulation. It can’t all be about “we need cheaper equipment” or “we need service providers to spend more”, although each will clearly a part. Each use case we will work on, each slice if you will, will chip away at the overall business case for rural connectivity.
The 5G Rural First Use Cases: What are we actually doing?
We’re now well into execution of around 15 or so different use cases – yes 15, even in a rural area! Each use case will demonstrate a new business model and/or a new service option that we believe will contribute a “slice” towards the rural connectivity business case. We’d like to do our bit to question the “but nobody lives there” aka population density methodology of determining rural connectivity investment.
Here is a summary of some of the key use cases we’re working on. I’ll expand on these in future blogs, and track progress towards the final testing early in calendar year 2019.
I’ll provide some more detail on these cases in a follow-on blog in the next week or so, and we are well on the way to confirm use cases and radio sites in the near future, as we wrap up site assessments and progress design work.
Why Our Service Provider Customers Will Be Interested
There are a number of reasons why our service provider customers will be interested in the 5G RuralFirst initiative. As well as shedding light on options to help address rural connectivity – a key challenge for many service providers around the world – this project will also enable us to investigate enterprise 5G buiness models. In our case the agri-tech use cases are already giving us insights into business model options for the agriculture industry. Furthermore, from a technology perspective, this testbed will run some of our newest products and software releases – before we deploy them in customers. And of course our professional services team are already gaining valuable hands-on 5G experience that many customers will benefit from in future.
A Personal Reflection: How We Got Here
5G RuralFirst was not a project that was “handed down from on high”. Its genesis was in the Scotland Innovation Partnership started by the Scottish Futures Trust with UK mobile operator EE, Cisco and others in 2016. Personally, my involvement started before this as a result of long queues at my local ski centre, caused by poor internet connectivity challenges, so I decided to raise awareness with this blog. Thanks to a number of people in Cisco who said “yes I can help you” when I called them with my (candidly) wacky ideas, we made our way step by step to be in the position to lead this amazing 5G RuralFirst collaborative project. Key to our engagement has been the Cisco Country Digital Acceleration program, and the unique Cisco Strategic Innovation Group. It’s amazing how the work environment in Cisco will help you make connections, and how those connections can help you innovate.