Located in the heart of the United Kingdom, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire is a contiguous region within the midlands often referred to as West Mercia. It has a variety of different geographies both in terms of topography ranging from rolling hills and valleys to open plains. Challenging features including Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and major rivers in the Severn, Avon and Wye.
All three counties include communities that meet the definitions of rural ‘sparse’ and ‘not sparse’ and all ‘settlement types’. The region covers two Health Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP) areas and two Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) areas, it is also represented by one Police Force.
The characteristics of both the selected area for the trial and the wider three counties mean it is an ideal geography to demonstrate the capabilities of the proposed new model, in a way that could be scaled across large parts of the United Kingdom’s rural areas.
Rural areas of England and Wales are often the poor relations of their urban neighbours when it comes to the roll out of digital infrastructure. Both superfast broadband and mobile services in rural areas still lack the coverage and quality that residents have come to expect across the majority of the population. Deployment to rural areas is often expensive, technically difficult and so commercially unattractive for network operators.
At the same time local authorities (LAs) and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in rural ares are facing increasing demands for their services from an aging population at a time when their funding has been under increasing pressure. Maintaining current approaches to service delivery is not sustainable and alternative models are required.
The WMR5G project brings together two very distinct challenges,
- How the mobile industry in the UK deploys 5G in rural areas at pace, but also at reasonable cost;
- How councils and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in rural areas, when faced with increasing demands for their critical services and with funding stretched due to increasing demand, find new models for delivery.
With a range of new assistive technologies being developed, improved connectivity will facilitate small pilots and allow new technologies to expand leading to potential improvements in key services and previously unviable new services.
The two challenges intertwine as whilst the new business model promises to reduce initial build costs, mobile operators must also find new revenue streams, beyond traditional ‘mobile phone users’ to justify the ongoing operational costs of delivering a network. Whilst 5G can provide improved home broadband services, it also has the capacity to support critical services such as those within the Health and Social Care sector. For a local authority or their care providers, if they were able to use 5G applications, such as high definition video to undertake care visits, they could save transport costs, reduce carbon footprint, undertake more visits (albeit virtual) per day, respond quicker and prioritise staff resource more effectively by only physically attending those with highest need. This could transform the service and efficiencies from reduced transport costs (time and fuel) would be then spent on the 5G data and reutilised in addressing increasing demand.
The impact of limited existing digital connectivity has an effect not only on rural public services and businesses but also on general quality of life. This covers such diverse concepts as lone workers and lonely and vulnerable individuals lacking the reassurance that they can reach emergency services or family members if needed, to gamers wishing to access the latest AR gaming services. The challenge WMR5G aims to address in rural areas is therefore two fold, addressing universal connectivity needs but also allowing for new products, enhanced services leading to efficiencies in both resources and funding. Addressing these challenges will support both the growth in the type and quality of services available in rural areas as well as bringing improvements in quality of life of to rural residents.
While this DCMS RCC Trial and Testbed programme will not deliver wholesale solutions across the whole of the West Mercia area, the WMR5G project has focused on two distinct areas – Malvern and Tenbury to explore the opportunities that 5G, associated new technologies and ways of working will present to the delivery of Health and Social Care to rural communities throughout the UK.
Some facts and figures
Shropshire – (Shropshire Council area)
Shropshire Council area (which does not cover Telford & Wrekin area) covers 1,235 square miles and borders Wales, the West Midlands and the North West. It is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country, with 1.01 persons per hectare. The total population for this area is 325,400, where 25% of this population is aged 65+ and the projected population for 2043 will be 381,514. 57.2% of the population live in rural areas which makes up 97.5% of the land mass. Conversely 42.8% of the population live in urban areas which makes up only 2.5% of the land mass. These facts highlight the issues that Shropshire Council has in relation to its demographics both in the age of the population, potentially requiring Health and Social Care services, as well as the remoteness of this population spread over the rural areas who may have limiting service delivery compared to urban areas.
Worcestershire covers 670 square miles and borders the Cotswolds and outskirts of Birmingham. The total population for this area is 592,158. 74% of the population live in urban areas which makes up only 16% of the land mass. Conversely 26% of the population live in rural areas which make up 84% of the county’s land mass. While Worcestershire has a smaller overall area with less rural areas, it still faces the significant challenges of providing Health and Social Care services to those communities that live in the rural areas.