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Associate feature: Changing the dynamics of 5G rollout

Telecoms mast in Strathconon - Image credit: The Scotland 5G Centre

Associate feature: Changing the dynamics of 5G rollout

5G connectivity has the power to change lives, offering the possibility of using AI and smart devices in all parts of the country.

But the standard commercial rollout model is based on the number of users, meaning that urban areas are the first to get it and rural areas with fewer residents tend to be left behind.

However, three Scottish innovation centres are looking to turn that on its head, flipping round the model to start from the point of considering what benefits better connectivity can bring to people in a particular community and creating an economic use case for 5G rollout from that.

With funding from the Scottish Government, The Scotland 5G Centre, CENSIS – Scotland’s innovation centre for sensing, imaging systems and internet of things (IoT) technologies – and the Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre (DHI), have come together to produce a rural health services and connectivity feasibility study, which will show how 5G can support health outcomes and business needs in rural Scotland.

This will not only benefit this country but could have worldwide application.

Holyrood sits down with Paul Coffey, CEO of The Scotland 5G Centre, Paul Winstanley, CEO of CENSIS and George Crooks, CEO of DHI, to talk about what they are planning and why it is significant.

Coffey says: “The objective of this study for me is to consider how deployment can be implemented cost effectively, based on outcomes and benefits to a wider community and to consider how can we deploy networks in regions, looking at it from a business-needs perspective.

“I think the pandemic is highlighting the demand behind that.

“So, if we lead with an anchor tenant, with a use case such as healthcare, we start with a deployment for that and look at what services can we utilise, what are the wider benefits to the public sector in doing that, and then if we can overlay additional use cases on top of that, it changes the dynamics and changes the business model and hopefully makes it sustainable.”

“This is about creating a collection of applications and use cases and aligning them,” says Winstanley.

“Once you begin thinking in those terms, you move quite quickly to, where actually is the key case? Where is the anchor case? Health.

“So that is straight into George's remit and area of expertise, but then actually, having established that network, what else can we do with it, that broader societal benefit, that broader economic benefit? What can we deliver as a consequence?”

The answer to that may have benefits beyond Scotland.

“The thing that excited me about this,” Crooks explains, “is that we can either talk about it in a very parochial Scottish perspective, or even more parochial than that, down to a specific geographical rural challenge, but I see the approach that we're looking to take has actually got a global relevance.

“And what I mean by that is the way that the global population is moving around the world more and more people are being sucked into larger and larger cities.

“We know that that is not a sustainable model…So from our point of view, how do you create resilient communities and how do you support them, particularly in remote and rural areas, be they remote and rural areas in Scotland or sub-Saharan Africa, to continue to hold on to their population, or actually begin to make them more attractive for people to live in?”

A key part of the rollout of digital healthcare is about supporting healthy aging so that people can remain in their own homes supported by the kind of smart technologies that we all use, such as watches, to monitor things like heart rate, blood pressure or whether someone has had a fall.

But on top of that, there is the urgent need to increase the use of digital technologies for healthcare to be sustainable.

Crooks says: “In a UK and European model, the provision of health and care is not affordable.

“It is not affordable into the medium or the long term, it's not actually, courtesy of COVID, affordable into the short term because the percentage of GDP that is being consumed by healthcare is increasing exponentially, whether you're in the UK or the US. In the US it's even worse.

“So, we therefore have to empower individuals to make better informed health and wellbeing choices, but equally importantly, we need to empower individuals to deliver more of their own health and care themselves and enable their families and their communities to deliver more of those services rather than being reliant on formal healthcare services to deliver those types of services, which are by their nature always more expensive.

“If you put all of that into the mix, the small project that we are taking forward assumes real importance, because we can replicate all the geographical challenges anywhere in the world in little Scotland.”

Winstanley adds: “When you look at connectivity across the globe, there are some areas of incredible sparsity.

“If we can use Scotland as a testbed and show what we can do here, the economic side of that and being able to export it is hugely significant for us.

“And that's some of the opportunity. So, can we deliver societal betterment? Can we deliver digitally enabled healthcare in a very rural environment?

“But from that, how can we build local economic and other societal benefits? Then we can explore how we take that as a proposition and begin to exploit it internationally.”

Moray has been identified as a likely location for the study, due to its combined health and business needs and progressive local authority.

DHI has a commitment, subject to final approvals, in Moray to look at smart housing, which could deploy IoT technologies into homes, both new build and refurbished, to keep people with support needs in their own homes, as well as improving energy efficiency.

There is also a need for the Scottish Ambulance Service to be able to do real-time, live patient monitoring of critically ill patients in the back of an ambulance in transit when travelling long distances to a hospital from areas such as Moray.

But it's not simply about health, it’s also about supporting local businesses, which is one of the reasons why Moray would be a sensible initial location, since it has a significant number of small rural businesses, a lot of them in food and drink, and many of them are hampered by poor connectivity.

 There is also the demand to provide more opportunities in the area to fight the twin pulls of Inverness and Aberdeen and to keep former military personnel who have been based there in the area after they leave the forces.

This creates a potential win-win situation for health and the local economy.

Another reason for choosing Moray, Crooks says, is “because Moray Council are one of the visionary councils exploring digital technologies as a way of empowering their citizens”.

In terms of the practical implementation, the first step will be to identify a specific area and look at the connectivity challenges and the connectivity needs, overlaying the remote health and social care applications and services.

DHI will take the lead on identifying the health needs, while CENSIS will work on the non-health use cases and The Scotland 5G Centre on connectivity requirements.

Initially, it will be a research project, but the plan is to identify a suitable location and implement the proposals there, running some real trials. It is a “step by step journey”, Crooks says.

Having now identified a potential location and being in discussion with the council as a potential partner, the next stage of the project is to raise awareness with regional stakeholders, gain community interest and engage around what is needed, which could be from individuals with specific health needs or local businesses.

While they are looking to “push the envelope” on possible use cases, they also want to hear where the demand is, Coffey says.

This really sums up the purpose of the project, Coffey concludes: “That underpins, for me, what The Scotland 5G Centre was set up to do.

“It's to raise awareness of what 5G is, who it can benefit and develop the supporting ecosystem.  

“5G is a technological shift that will transform people, businesses and society as a whole.

“And this is just one example of why 5G can enable different use cases and digital transformation.

“So, we can take this as an example and drive through economic and societal benefit to Scotland but then showcase and demonstrate that globally.”

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