Rural broadband UK: opportunities lie in more openness in shared and local access spectrum licencing

Oliver Bosshard, COO at Real Wireless, and James Body, CEO from Telet Research share thoughts on the opportunities and issues associated with rural and remote broadband provision. Could tweaks to shared and local access licencing processes see them deliver on their potential?

Real Wireless has been involved with 5G since its inception and we spend a lot of our time advising clients how to understand the roadmap and how it relates to their operations and business. But as independent advisors, we are candid about the challenges associated with the rollout of standalone 5G networks and the fact that, in many cases, 5G is not the solution to all of our wireless connectivity problems. In fact, our view is that LTE is a robust and extremely potent technology that can already deliver many of the use cases often cited in 5G era scenarios focused on developed nations. And in the years ahead, LTE will be invaluable in the context of connecting the unconnected in rural areas.

We have recently taken on the role of Independent Assessor for the Shared Rural Network Initiative, a 4G based service improvement programme. Extending urban 5G into a rural setting is difficult, in terms of both the economics and the technology of its spectrum allocation: the 5G mid-band spectrum isn’t the most suitable for widely-dispersed communities. The lower (sub 1 GHz) frequency bands are better suited to delivering mobile services across the widest possible area at the lowest costs. Those frequencies don’t leave operators with much spectrum to deliver broadband data. Conversely, the higher 5G frequencies are too short-range to be of use in effectively serving distributed rural communities.

Satellite broadband (including the OneWeb or Starlink projects with timescales for deployment in the next 12 months) may present a longer-term solution to broadband needs – even though they won’t support mobile voice with broadband. But it’s currently too early to tell where they will be used most effectively. But key applications will certainly be in extreme-remote areas where terrestrial network deployment cost would be prohibitive. Oil and mining businesses in, for example, the Australian outback have pioneered the use of multiple technologies to get around such challenges.

The spectrum is there, let’s use it and licence it correctly

Telet and Real Wireless have tested and demonstrated the potential in under-utilised spectrum by the MNOs (in particular, 2.6 GHz and upwards) in rural areas (particularly in the areas where coverage gaps currently exist) through its involvement in the MANY (Mobile Access North Yorkshire) project, a part of a £200 million 5G Testbed and Trials programme Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The UK took an early leading role in the reuse of underused spectrum when Ofcom announced its strategy in 2019 to offer two types of licences to improve how this spectrum can support applications such as rural and indoor coverage. In these ‘areas’ it is notoriously difficult to offer the same levels of service, compared to ‘standard’ urban wireless broadband provision. These two licence types are called “local access licence” and “shared access licence” and they enable 4G or 5G private networks for rural and remote connectivity as well as indoor and industrial applications. Additionally, they support the evolution of Private Network Operators (PNOs).

The “local access licences” enable organisations to make use of licenced MNO spectrum in areas where it is unused or underused by MNOs. The main locations where it will be realistic to offer reliable services under a “local access licence” scheme will be rural and remote areas. A spectrum usage measurement campaign in these areas will help to understand what spectrum bands are underused and which MNO to apply to, which is something we can help with.

The “shared access licences” apply to 1.8 GHz, 2.3 GHz, 3.8-4.2 GHz and 24.25-26.5 GHz (indoor use only) bands. Within these bands, there are low power and medium power licence options but it’s the medium power licences that are targeted towards rural or urban deployments or even private networks for indoor coverage. The selection of ideal power levels and spectrum bands might not be obvious and is use case driven. This is also something Real Wireless can help with.

As good as the opportunity for shared access and local access spectrum are in significantly improving coverage in underserved areas or for industrial private networks, there are hurdles that need to be overcome in how the licencing processes are managed.

There are Ofcom managed processes in place for such licence applications, but there are two areas that we think can be easily improved to extend the UK’s leadership in spectrum reuse and to make a significant dent in the provision of private networks:

  • The responsiveness and willingness by MNO to allow usage in proven under-used spectrum; and
  • How Ofcom limits frequency reuse in shared access spectrum

 This spectrum reuse strategy is vitally important to Ofcom and to our national broadband strategy, and both Real Wireless and Telet Research believe that with a little easing of the limitations on frequency reuse, rural communities, industries, private network providers, DCMS and MNOs will all benefit.