Imagine fast, secure, and reliable internet – no matter where you live. For many rural communities in Scotland struggling to connect to the internet, this is a stretch. 

With the knowledge that poor connectivity is no longer acceptable as we rely on it for business, enterprise, schooling and connecting with families, major trials have been undertaken in Orkney. 

The Scotland 5G Centre rural test bed worked alongside the 5G New Thinking project to deploy 5G technologies to demonstrate that improved mobile coverage – and broadband wireless networks – can be implemented by communities and installed, operated, and managed by local providers.

The Scotland 5G Centre worked alongside the StrathSDR team at University of Strathclyde, key partner Cisco, and local partners CloudNet IT Solutions and SHEFA.

First, they created a test bed on Loch Lomondside to demonstrate, test and evaluate new 5G technologies utilising shared spectrum. Then, this technology and know-how was transferred to Orkney where 5G networks were built and deployed and operational and community models developed and tested. 

Orkney was used as the test case as it provides its own set of unique challenges to connectivity. The cluster of 20 islands stretches over a great distance and sits where the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. 

The islands have the slowest fixed broadband speed of any local authority area in the UK. Over a quarter of households were unable to achieve the minimum speed to meet an average household’s digital needs – the government-mandated ‘universal service obligation’ requiring providers to reach speeds of 10mb/s. On half of the islands, 100 per cent of residents cannot achieve this minimum, and there is no prospect of fixed broadband being rolled out. 

In Orkney, 83 per cent of roads do not have 4G services from all mobile network operators and nearly a quarter of premises have either no 4G service or no choice of operator. 

The collaborators on the Orkney trials also demonstrated the viability and engineering required to implement a single mobile network that could provide neutral host support to mobile network operators and provide fixed wireless access broadband services to the community. 

The project also looked at ways to offer sufficient capacity for the number of smartphones and handsets and premises across the islands. 

The team created two networks in underserved and remote areas in Westray and Flotta using a combination of seven base stations with 20MHz cells working on various available shared and test radio frequency bands. 

Where available, backhaul (transmision of a signal from a remote site to a central one) was set up either as microwave and fibre links, and for future set-ups, recent tests at the Loch Lomondside test bed indicate the viability of low earth orbit satellites, such as Starlink, for backhaul, bringing true “middle of nowhere” 5G networks to reality. 

The combined solution also suggests a new localised sharing framework allowing access to vacant parts of the radio spectrum, as well as using the Ofcom designated “shared access” radio frequencies across various mobile bands. 

This connectivity afforded by new 5G ecosystems will offer opportunities to encourage partners to invest in and address the needs and aspirations and businesses in rural locations in Scotland. 

The Orkney project ensures that rural communities will not be left behind as they take advantage of next generation 5G via self-provision and the building of community owned networks.

Partner Content in association with The Scotland 5G Centre