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UK government tries to encourage 5G innovation rural areas

telecoms radio towers

The UK government has set aside £30 million to fund a few winners of a competition to come up with bright ideas about exploiting 5G tech in the countryside.

This marks the latest minor trip to the well that is the National Productivity Investment Fund, a pot of £37 billion in public wedge that is being drip-fed to industry every time the government reckons a certain area of infrastructure could do with a prod in the right direction. 5G and fibre are core national infrastructure topics, as is the development of rural communities, so the government gets two PR wins for the price of one with this announcement – a bargain at £30 million.

“The British countryside has always been a hotbed of pioneering industries and we’re making sure our rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age,” said Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan. “We’re investing millions so the whole country can grasp the opportunities and economic benefits of next generation 5G technology.

“In modern Britain people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead.”

That latter statement is a nod to ongoing work to give operators better access to places where they can stick their radio gear, which presumably resulted from persistent moaning on the matter from said operators. This could well be especially challenging in rural areas, where land owners are in a strong position to dictate the terms of business.

Among the changes under consideration in this area are:

  • changing the permitted height of new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, promote mast sharing and minimise the need to build more infrastructure;
  • allowing existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing;
  • deploying radio equipment cabinets on protected and unprotected land without prior approval, excluding sites of special scientific interest; and
  • allowing building-based masts nearer to roads to support 5G and increase mobile coverage.

“We’re committed to delivering the homes people across the country need, and that includes delivering the right infrastructure such as broadband connectivity and good mobile coverage,” said Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Esther McVey.

“There is nothing more frustrating than moving into your new home to find signal is poor. That’s why we are proposing to simplify planning rules for installing the latest mobile technology – helping to extend coverage and banish more of those signal blackspots, particularly for those living in rural areas.”

Slightly hyperbolic there, Esther, and it’s presumably part of any home-buyer’s due diligence to check the mobile signal when they inspect their prospective purchase, but we get your point. Whether land-owners, farmers, etc agree on the paramount importance of rural mobile connectivity is another matter, but one of the organizations claiming to represent them seems keen.

“The vast potential of the rural economy will only be fulfilled when everyone in the countryside has full mobile connectivity, and we welcome DCMS’s intent to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise of internet access for all,” said Mark Bridgeman, Deputy President of the Country Land and Business Association.

“The current situation, where only 67% of the country can access a decent signal, is unacceptable and government is right to focus on planning reform as a means to removing current barriers but there must also be a balance between the interests of landowners and mobile operators.”

Prospective rural 5G pioneers have a couple of months to apply for a piece of the 30 mil. This sort of thing seems fairly positive on the surface, but it’s debatable how much impact chucking a few mil at a small number of pet projects will have in the great scheme of things. On the flip side any state intervention in private business needs to be treated with caution as the ultimate arbiter of the viability of any business initiative should be the market.

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