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August 2, 2023updated 03 Aug 2023 9:07am

Government looks to space to solve UK 5G connectivity problems

With connections in rural areas often found wanting, satellites could provide businesses with high-speed network access.

By Ryan Morrison

The UK government has launched a new £160m fund to back satellite-based solutions that could fill the gaps in the UK’s 5G network. At present, businesses and consumers in rural areas often struggle to access high-speed mobile networks, and it is thought satellite internet connections like those provided by SpaceX Starlink or OneWeb could help. The fund launches as Virgin Media becomes the first UK telco to launch a “plug-and-play” 5G switch for enterprise networks.

Space-based transmitters are seen as a way to deliver broadband to rural parts of the country (Photo: Andrei Armiagov/Shutterstock)
Space-based transmitters are seen as a way to deliver broadband to rural parts of the country. (Photo by Andrei Armiagov/Shutterstock)

Organisations with innovative approaches to bridging the rural broadband and 5G gap will be able to bid for a share of the new fund. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) says the project could include new constellations in low earth orbit. 

Called the Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit scheme (CLEO), it is designed to build on top of the existing UK satellite manufacturing base. The goal is to provide businesses with the resources needed to design and build the development of new constellations, ranging in size from a couple of craft to hundreds of satellites orbiting a few hundred miles from Earth’s surface. This enables lower-latency, higher-speed connections than traditional geosynchronous orbiting satellites but more are required to cover a large area.

Among the potential ideas that could gain funding are projects that lead to smarter satellites with better hardware, AI tools to improve data delivery and improved connectivity between satellites in a constellation and the Earth. 

This would be the largest single investment from the UK government in satellite communications, and ties into the wider pledge from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to turn the UK into a global space superpower with launch, manufacturing and research capabilities.

As well as money for the satellites, there will also be funding for other projects around 5G integration at a test facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. The aim of those is to establish resilient networks that can serve remote areas of the country with high-speed internet. 

Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said tackling the digital divide was vital for the IK, and at the heart of empowering citizens. “This proposed record investment is also potentially a huge opportunity to harness our reputation as a world leader in innovation and R&D investment, supporting leading UK businesses to deliver the next generation of satellites and positioning the UK as a true space superpower,” Donelan said.

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It should be pointed out that the funding hasn’t been fully secured yet, with up to £100m coming from a direct government grant, and a potential £60m from the European Space Agency’s Advanced Research In Telecommunications Systems programme. 

Virgin Media is putting 5G in a box

While space might be the future for rural connectivity, Virgin Media O2’s business unit is rolling out 5G in a box. It is the first UK telco to offer the 5G Standalone Private Network that brings 5G connectivity to a company “at the flick of a switch” without additional networking infrastructure. 

The box is about the size of an airline carry-on bag and is designed to be installed and switched on by anyone, not just a telecom engineer. Adding a 5G network can make deploying IoT infrastructure easier within a company network. It works across extended reality and smart technology with lower latency than a Wi-Fi network, Virgin Media says.

Jo Bertram, managing director at Virgin Media O2 Business, said it is crucial companies operating in the UK have the connectivity they need. “From start-ups to large enterprises, our latest network solution will enable 5G trials and deployment without the time or cost of building a whole network,” Bertram said.

Read more: The stars have finally aligned for India’s satellite launch industry

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