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As 5G networks begin to pop up in large cities, users in smaller towns have complained that 4G networks never reached their full potential in rural areas — assuming they ever received 4G service at all. Rather than just paying lip service to the premise of offering 5G outside cities, Cisco is leading a group of 29 partners in what might be the “world’s most ambitious rural 5G trial,” with the aim of showing how high-speed networks can transform agriculture over the next decade.

Developed by Cisco and Scotland’s University of Strathclyde with UK government funding, the 5G RuralFirst initiative has been building rural 5G test sites in the Orkney Islands, Shropshire, and Somerset since last June. Using hardware from 10 different wireless vendors, the sites are testing radio frequencies Europe has earmarked for 5G: long distance but slower 700MHz; suburban- and city-scale 3.5GHz; and short distance but super fast 26GHz millimeter wave.

5G RuralFirst’s inclusion of 700MHz spectrum is particularly important because bringing 5G service to rural areas requires far-reaching radio signals that can blanket large spaces with low population densities. In the United States, T-Mobile has said that it will use similar 600MHz spectrum to cover “hundreds of square miles” with a single 5G tower, reducing the buildout requirements for a national 5G network while reaching rural customers.

Unlike urban 5G tests, which are constrained to a mile, kilometer, or similarly small areas, the Orkney Isles testbed stretches across 2,000 square kilometers, plus an additional 1,000 kilometer stretch to Somerset. Cisco notes that these huge, largely open areas don’t have complete 5G coverage during the testing, but currently house handfuls of 5G radio sites that are being used for testing various use cases.


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What can 5G offer in rural settings? While there’s been no shortage of hype about 5G drones that will broadcast from and map far-flung locations, 5G RuralFirst is planning to test deeper and more rural-focused uses of 5G. They include a completely remote-managed square of agricultural land called the “Hands Free Hectare,” a test of autonomous tractors that can run at all hours of the day, and distance monitoring of a salmon fishery, to name just a few of the 15 different 5G use cases that will be tested.

Benefits of the research may well extend beyond purely agricultural purposes. As part of the test, the BBC is planning to trial 5G as a means for broadcasting, with the aim of offering fully digital programming going forward. Internet of things 5G sensor testing is planned for the renewable energy industry, and additional testing aims to improve consumer mobile broadband service to poorly served Orkney residents.

With the test beds established, 5G RuralFirst says it will begin actual testing this month, then publicly share the results at a project finale event in Glasgow on March 28. Bits and pieces of news may trickle out before then on the 5G RuralFirst blog.

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