Ofcom opens up airwaves to improve rural connectivity

Farmers and rural businesses are being given the opportunity to build bespoke wi-fi networks for better mobile phone and broadband connectivity.

Ofcom, the UK’s telecom regulator, has announced that start-up and small businesses are now able to apply for shared-access airwaves – or “spectrums” – which were previously restricted to major mobile operators.

Under the new rules, villages, small business groups and other communities can apply to access airwaves that are licensed to the major mobile companies, but not currently used by them locally.

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Ofcom says these could be used to support dedicated local mobile or wireless broadband networks, improving coverage in the area. The new approach could pave the way for a number of new services for farmers.

For example, it could enable farmers to set up their own local network across large sites, improving communications between people and connected agricultural devices used for monitoring livestock and crops, irrigation systems and smart tractors.

Better connections

As well as supporting industry to innovate, the new approach could also help small communities – mostly in rural areas – where national mobile networks have yet to reach.

The Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) says the announcement has huge potential for the rural economy.

Many of its farmer members will be looking forward to working with Ofcom to create private networks that will benefit a wide range of rural businesses, said Charles Trotman, the CLA’s senior rural business and economics adviser.

“This new capacity will also allow farmers to further embrace technological innovation, leading them to become more efficient and productive,” Dr Trotman added.

“The ability to fully use today’s telecommunications networks truly has the potential to kickstart a new agricultural revolution. This technology will also make it easier for rural communities to come together to build local broadband and mobile networks.”

How to apply

Farmers looking to use a spectrum that is licensed to mobile companies, but not being used by them in a local area, can apply to Ofcom now.

Users will pay £950 per licence, which allows them to use the spectrum for up to three years – or longer if agreed with the relevant mobile company. 

Ofcom has published guidance on these licences and how they work, including how to apply, on its website.