Holy cow! Cisco on the meaning of 5G, and how collared cattle will stand up 5G masts
Cisco is making the business case for mobile operators to install 5G masts in rural regions based on connecting livestock, rather than people.
The company, leading a network of 29 organisations in the UK, is confident its project will produce a ‘hard’ ROI for service providers to deploy 5G more widely than they have either 3G or 4G networks.
The work will help bridge the digital divide, between city and country, and also define new business models and opportunities for the technology, including in urban setting, said Cisco.
“This is a completely new way of thinking. If we get it right, we create a new way for people to deploy 5G,” commented Nick Chrissos, the company’s director of innovation in Europe.
5G RuralFirst is one of half a dozen 5G testbeds in the UK, established by the government to put right some of the challenges of previous generations of radio technology. The idea is to connect hard-to-reach areas of the UK, and stimulate new business models along the way.
Cisco is the lead partner on the project, which seeks to establish an ‘end-to-end’ rural 5G testbed system for trials of new wireless and networking technologies, spectrum sharing, and new applications and services.
“It’s worth thinking about what 3G and 4G have brought, and what 5G is bringing. 3G was all about data on smart devices. 4G exploded that, so it was about the volume of data, and new ways to consume information – with lots of video, very different to 3G,” explained Chrissos.
“But both of them were based on high volumes of users, consuming high volumes of data. That’s why deployment has been in the cities. It’s been an urban kind of tech, until now. The minute you go outside the cities, the volume of both reduces dramatically, and the infrastructure becomes more expensive.”
Almost one in five people in the UK (17 per cent) live in rural areas, which also bring in tourists, trade, and travellers. More than half of the UK (57 per cent) is farmland; more than a third (35 per cent) is classified as ‘natural’ land. Only a tenth is considered as either ‘green urban’ or ‘built on’ (8.4 per cent).
“The reality is 4G has hardly been deployed in rural areas in the UK just because the business case is not there,” said Chrissos.
“If we leave it to mobile operators, they will present 5G as better for bandwidth, better for managing services, and better for efficiency. But the business case won’t change, because it is still based on the number of people and the consumption of data,.
“The way we see 5G – and the way the UK government sees 5G – is as an ubiquitous network that connects much more than just people and data. We see it as an amazing network that connects everything together. The connectivity of people, and the data they generate, is no longer the objective – it’s not the business case, but the byproduct of why we put 5G there.”
The terminology is confused. For Chrissos, as well as the UK government, ‘5G’ is a catch-all for a range of new connectivity systems, covering everything from low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies like LTE-M and NB-IoT, and unlicensed equivalents like LoRa and Sigfox, through to higher-grade 5G ‘new radio’ (5G NR) variants.
“That’s the thing with 5G. It doesn’t really describe the radio connectivity yet. Yes, there will be millimetre wave new-radio systems. But LoRa and NB-IoT and Wi-Fi be a part of a combined 5G infrastructure. This is what 5G brings – that ability to accommodate different systems,” explained Chrissos.
“What the network operators call 5G, and what cities and farmers call 5G are different things. For operators, 5G is an extension of 4G, just with better connectivity, more bandwidth, and newer opportunities to make money. For everyone else, it is this ubiquitous connectivity, where everything connects.”
Different sectors have different viewpoints. Mobile operators are marketing early 5G as a go-faster version of LTE – a generational upgrade of the radio system to drive sales. The public sector wants it to spur the economy. Neither touch upon its more futuristic aspects, covering massive machine-type (mMTC) and ultra low-latency (URLLC) communications.
“That’s right; if you talk to the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, they will tell you a different story, about spectrum and radio elements. The reality is all of these are 5G.”
One strand of the 5G RuralFirst project has been to connect 2,000 cows in Somerset, in the west of England – with ‘5G’ collars running on various LPWA variants. “We are connecting with LoRa, NB-IoT, and new radio frequency systems as part of 5G,” said Chrissos.
Cisco is collaborating with the public and private sector agencies to calculate the value this basic connectivity, layered with new farming applications and intelligence, can deliver to farmers. The experiment seeks to proactively manage animal health through IoT monitoring of rumination, fertility and eating patterns in cows.
“We are putting a collar on every cow. We will have 2,000 collars and 2,000 cows. That’s 2,000 new endpoints for the mobile network – in the middle of nowhere.”
But is it enough for mobile opetators to put a mast in? Are connected cows, however numerous, going to generate the kind of data traditional subscribers will pay £30 per month for? The data rates are minimal, surely?
The thinking is wrong-headed, it seems. If anything, the perceived value from connected cows is simpler to define, according to Chrissos. “With people, there are lots of ‘soft’ benefits associated with connectivity – like their ‘experience’. With cows, the ROI will be much easier – it comes down to how much money the farmer make from them,” said Chrissos.
“We are not there yet. But we will know that if you invest £5, say, to connect a cow then you will get £15 back – for these reasons. We will really show the impact of this technology. It’s going to be translated into a much harder ROI than we have ever achieved with people.”