The COVID pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to address the issue of rural communities in the UK who find themselves cut off from the digital age.
Lack of access to a mobile data signal and broadband is hampering NHS Test and Trace in some areas. And many people have not been able to make use of advances such as telemedicine and video consultations which have proved invaluable for so many patients during lockdown.
On Monday (December 7) Future Care Capital (FCC) is holding an online event Connected Care: Enabling rural care through 5G and tech infrastructure to focus attention on the problem.
FCC Head of Policy and Research Dr. Peter Bloomfield said he hoped the webinar would help spark a bigger conversation around improving connectivity in rural areas.
“There is no connectivity in some areas and that means those living there are digitally excluded and not receiving the same level of healthcare available to others,” he said.
“People are losing copper connectivity as it’s being retired. And fibre broadband hasn’t yet made it to a lot of these places.
“COVID has brought all this to the fore and it needs to be addressed.”
He added that it was not just patients requiring acute care who were affected. Those with long-term conditions who need ongoing care and visits from care workers in the community are also missing out.
To register for Connected Care: Enabling rural care through 5G and tech infrastructure on Monday December 7 (4-5pm) click here
Orkney has the poorest connectivity of all the UK in terms of 4G, broadband coverage and speed.
Last year it was the chosen site for the 5G Rural First trial, testing rural 5G connectivity though a joint project with Cisco and the University of Strathclyde. The aim was to look at using the 5G spectrum to deliver fixed wireless access to open up a multitude of opportunities for the islands’ 22,000 residents.
It involved a number of schemes including Legionella Monitoring using the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable remote monitoring of water in a school.
Shona Croy, Orkney Strategic Advisor for Renewables and Connectivity, said the project was a success.
“It demonstrated that we have the technical ability to deliver. The scheme had great benefits for our community – till it came to a close.
“It was time-limited so the toys were taken away at the end of it. It’s hard because giving people something and then removing it is probably the worst thing you can do.”
Ms Croy added that rural areas don’t expect parity of service with cities, but they should be entitled to some sort of service.
“Of course focusing technical innovation on cities can benefit higher numbers of people. But for rural residents the benefits are greater. If you have to take two boats and then a five hour onward journey to get to hospital then digital connectivity can make a huge difference.”
The good news is Orkney is now part of a new trial, the 5G New Thinking project which runs until 2022, looking at neutral hosting in which a single community-owned network is used by all four mobile network operators.
Ms Croy says: “We’re trying to ascertain the commercial feasibility, not just the technical feasibility. It makes no sense unless this is going to be a sustainable service in an area with limited numbers of residential customers.
“We hope we are successful as this really is a crucial issue for us.”