The 5G RuralFirst 5G/IoT Test Site at Scottish Sea Farms in the Orkney Islands

Lots has been happening on our 5G RuralFirst co-innovation, Country Digitization Acceleration (CDA) project being run by Cisco UK & Ireland.

Within Cisco UK & Ireland, it is the Cisco Innovation team that is leading this ambitious 29 partner consortium. My own part of Cisco, the Customer Experience organisation (formerly known as “Cisco Services”), is making a significant investment to help our current and future 5G projects via this ambitious project.

Our focus in 5G RuralFirst is the challenge of rural connectivity, what we call “Beyond the City”.

Beyond the City

The objective of 5G RuralFirst is to demonstrate 5G’s game-changing potential and practical use cases that help contribute to the business case for improving “Beyond the City” connectivity.  For many of you reading this, you will live in areas of pervasive connectivity.  That’s not always the case when you travel across the world.  Developing nations are challenged due to the cost of investment required. However, even in developed countries, like the United Kingdom and even the United States, lack of pervasive high speed internet access and pervasive mobile coverage is challenging both industry and government. The topic has also become a proverbial “hot potato”, with regular political escalations, often with – candidly – misinformed or misleading assertions being made in the press and TV.  And of course, most, if not all of us, will be familiar with gaps in mobile coverage – what we call “not spots”, even within our biggest cities.  Even today, achieving pervasive mobile connectivity is a huge challenge.

Beyond the City, then, 5G RuralFirst is well on the way to demonstrate the full potential of 5G and use of the Internet of Things in a rural setting. From autonomous drones mapping crops to increase yield, to broadcasting to remote locations. Or from remote monitoring the health of salmon, to autonomous tractors being able to work around the clock. In fact, our principal partner, the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, is in the middle of integration testing of the radio network at one of our 5G testbed sites, the Hands Free Hectare at Harper-Adams University in Shropshire.

I spend a lot of my leisure time beyond the city.  Cycling in the fabulous Scottish countryside and skiing in our stunning mountains – I just wish we had more predictable snow!   It’s interesting to reflect that my obsession with “fixing” internet access at my local Scottish ski centre, back in 2016, started me – and Cisco – on the path to leading 5G RuralFirst.  Somehow I managed to get Cisco UK&I into this, see here, and convince Cisco UK&I to fund, winning funding from the UK Government in their 5G Testbed and Trial competition last March.  Cisco is definitely a company where you can make things happen!


The Beyond the City Challenge: Who Is Investing in Rural 5G ?

There are many 5G trials happening across the world. However not many are rural.  Via the 5G Testbed and Trial programme, the UK Government have made – wisely in my opinion – directed investments in two rural trials which puts the UK at least in contention, I assert, for leadership in investigating the challenges of rural 5G connectivity via large scale trials.

Many suggest that rural connectivity will only be solved by government funding. I disagree. Cisco and our 5G RuralFirst partner consortium are investing heavily in 5G RuralFirst, together with (part) government funding.  I have to say, the consortium approach of 5G RuralFirst is paying huge dividends – with 5G expertise growing rapidly across the six part UK funded 5G testbeds.

Could 5G RuralFirst Be The World’s Most Ambitious 5G Testbed and Trial Project?

This is a question, I have to say, I’ve been pondering.  There are no official “measurements” of such a question.   A Google Search of “Rural 5G Trial” is surprising.  The key trials appear to be 5G RuralFirst, and close to the UK, plans for Vodafone rural 5G investment in Ireland, which I applaud.  Our sister project, 5GRIT (one of the UK Government 5G Testbed and Trial Projects) is also close to the top of  the search results.

Google Search “Rural 5G Trial”

By the Numbers

The 5G RuralFirst testbed spans around 2,000 square km in and around the Orkney Isles (note – this is the area in which we have placed over 10 radio sites – we are not claiming to have pervasive coverage across this area – we have focused exclusively on “not spots”).  And we span over 1,000 km from the Orkney Isles north of the Scottish mainland to Somerset in South West England.  It’s interesting to reflect on these numbers when some people state “but it’s just a trial.”

5G RuralFirst – Key Partners and Associate Partners

By the Number of Use Cases

The following chart summarises our use cases and technology.  We have 15 or so use cases. I’ve yet to see a 5G trial take on this kind of complexity, although I am happy to be corrected.  And we are getting there, with our aim to complete a first set of use cases testing by end of March 2019 (yes, this year!).  I am of course more than happy to be corrected, and I will be delighted if you do so – any investment in rural connectivity has to be welcomed!

5G RuralFirst – The Challenge

By the Number of Radios

I count 10 wireless (incl. radio) vendors in our solution. Parallel Wireless, PureLiFi, Amarisoft/ AW2S SDR and Phazr.Accelleran/Facebook/OpenCellular/TIP and Cisco LoRaWAN are all being deployed in our testbed sites aligned to particular use cases.

Parallel Wireless radios are being deployed in the enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases, delivering the first mobile internet ever to 7 “not spots” around the Orkney Isles (watch out for the first of these going live very soon!). The University of Strathclyde are pioneering Software Defined Radio (Amarisoft/AW2S) design and deployment in Orkney and Shropshire.  Further and notably, all are being deployed in the  Orkney Islands by CloudNet IT Solutions Ltd, who are doing just a fabulous job working with the respective wireless partners and are a foundation stone of 5G RuralFirst.  Contrast this to most 5G trials, which settle on one or two radio vendors. Kudos to CloudNet!

By the Number of Partners

In addition to the 29 key partner 5G RuralFirst consortium, shown below, we have also added a number of “Associate Partners”, for example Accelleran and Phazr, and notably Facebook TIP, who have invested after the project kicked off in June 2018.

5G RuralFirst – Key Partners and Associate Partners

Wrapping Up

This is a huge project.  We have made huge progress in building out our testbed, with integration testing well underway.  We’ll start use case testing in a few weeks.  Then we will – publicly – share our key learnings and results.  It’s an exciting time to be at Cisco, and it’s a huge honour to be part of this fabulous team of incredibly committed partners who are co-investing alongside Cisco and the UK Government.

For more information on 5G RuralFirst,  please read our growing set of blogs.  And please do follow us on Twitter at the links below.  As we approach the use case testing phase, and head for the project finale event on March 28th in Glasgow, Scotland, there will be lots of insight we’ll be sharing!


Stephen Speirs

SP Product Management

Cisco Customer Experience (CX)