MANY hears the lived experiences of communities which lack reliable digital connectivity

In late 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced the funding of seven Rural Connected Communities initiatives under the £200million 5G Testbed and Trials programme

Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) was one of the projects. A £6.4million programme led by Quickline Communications with the consortium including North Yorkshire County Council and the universities of York and Lancaster as well as several SME’s.

MANY’s aim is to explore the latest technology - 5G – to determine if it can deliver ultrafast broadband connectivity in rural areas, whilst offering a conventional mobile phone service via roaming agreements with the Mobile Network Operators.

A key element has been to give rural communities a voice. Achieved via the projects research partners – Lancaster University Management School – it has given residents the chance to explain their lived experiences ensuring the technical solutions developed are right for the area.

The first community MANY is working with is Coverdale. Situated in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it is known for its tourism, farming and racehorse training. The area copes with unreliable, sporadic broadband and little mobile signal, which has meant daily tasks can prove difficult, even outside the pandemic.

Agglethorpe farmer Tim Brown said: “Simple things like being able to update records whilst out or registering the birth of cattle (which has to be done within fourteen days) is difficult, because we have no mobile connection outside and unreliable broadband inside.”

Other businesses agree. The Saddle Rooms, which brings £1m to the local economy through its “use local” ethos, is in a similar position. Manager Leo Morris said: “Apps exist for the smooth running of hospitality businesses, yet for it to work properly – like any other five-star business – we need to have connectivity. We can’t upload instantly if we haven’t got reliable WIFI or mobile data.”

The pandemic has heightened the issue. Working from home, remote schooling and GP appointments are just some of the activities that have moved online. The project heard that during the first lockdown a young person had to sit at the top of their drive – half a mile away – to engage with remote learning.

Yet, there has been an assumption among many that the move online has been easy, however, in rural Coverdale – and other areas of North Yorkshire where ‘not spots’ exist – it has been difficult; sometimes impossible.

A key aim of the MANY project is to assist in eliminating the digital divide. The model trialled, if successful, can be rolled out to other rural areas in North Yorkshire and across the country. Therefore, the information gained is key. It allows the network to be enabled for a rural area now whilst building for the future.

The ability to make phone calls outside is a significant requirement. Coverdale is a place to walk, cycle and ride but is also home to two high-risk industries – racehorse training and farming – meaning a reliable mobile signal can be a matter of life or death.

Sam Lambert, who lives in Braidley, said:

“If we roll a quad bike on top of ourselves there is currently no way of getting help.”

Sarah added: “If something happens to Tim, her father-in-law or stepson, all of whom work the farm, we don’t have the luxury of protection.”

5G will be delivered via a mixture of fixed, wired and mobile technology meaning lives and livelihoods can rely on reliable and robust connectivity inside and outside the home. It can support the first critical hour for the emergency services, whilst giving businesses and residents the chance to help their day-to-day lives such as cameras in farming sheds, operations documentation or GP diagnostics.

Yet, it can do more, for example, such as monitoring of river levels in real time offering early warning systems to be proactive against flooding which is integral for North Yorkshire County Council who deal with flooding on an annual basis. For the community, the same technology gives the ability to monitor water plants - essential for an area, which does not have mains water.

Saddle Rooms manager Leo Morris said:

“Being part of the MANY project means we get the benefits of mobile communications for us to move the business forward as well as keeping our staff and customers safe and happy.”   

Fundamentally, 5G offers rural communities sustainability. Sarah said: “Young people move away from the area but want to move back when they have a family. Yet, it doesn’t offer what they want.”

Building a network, which will work with new technology will help bring people to the area, which, as Sarah says “makes the place thrive, ensuring its future”.

The MANY project’s aim is for the 5G network to go live in April/May 2021.

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