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Sunderland seeks partner to become a ‘neutral host’ 5G city

The move aims to boost connectivity across the city and give citizens and businesses more choice.

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The UK city of Sunderland is setting up a commercial consortium to become a ‘neutral host’ for 5G connectivity and open-access fibre, from which telecoms operators will then rent capacity to offer their own services.

 

Neutral host infrastructure comprises a single, shared network solution provided on an open-access basis to mobile network operators (MNOs). Neutral host infrastructure is usually deployed, maintained and operated by a third-party provider and designed to support all MNO technologies.

 

The move aims to boost connectivity across the city and give citizens and businesses in Sunderland more choice.

 

Supported by law firm Bevan Brittan, Sunderland City Council is launching a procurement process for a strategic delivery partner to help fund, build and operate the infrastructure. The city aims to have a partner in place by early 2021.

 

It also plans to hold a market engagement event soon to glean input from telecom operators.

Connectivity gap

 

Sunderland has identified digital connectivity as one of its key challenges, with one of the poorest ultra-fast broadband penetration rates of all UK cities, according to a Centre for Cities report. It is also not yet a target area for most major private-sector 5G and fibre roadmaps, with strategies typically prioritised around perceived commercial viability.

 

Sunderland has identified digital connectivity as one of its key challenges, with one of the poorest ultra-fast broadband penetration rates of all UK cities.

 

“We didn’t have operators queuing up at our door to say we’re happy to come and install connectivity across your city. So for us, that meant intervening in the market, which is what we’re doing,” Liz St Louis, assistant director of digital and customer service, Sunderland City Council, told SmartCitiesWorld.

 

The council had noted that connectivity gaps were holding back some of the work it is trying to progress, such as deploying smart home technology for assisted living. A two-day event held in April last year with major businesses and academic institutions from the city revealed high-speed connectivity was also a priority for them.

 

“What came out of that meeting was an absolute commitment from partners across the city to progress an agenda that would provide ubiquitous connectivity to every premise in Sunderland every business, every resident’s household through wired and wireless connectivity. They really wanted to pursue that agenda, leaving no-one and nowhere behind,” said St Louis.

 

Use cases

 

The meeting also yielded six key use cases for 5G in Sunderland, relating to a digital city centre; smart homes; sporting excellence and major events; business start-up and scale-up; education, skills and learning; and industry 4.0.

 

“The connectivity is all very good, but why are we putting it in? It’s to really transform the way that people can live, work, learn and operate," St Louis said.

 

Car manufacturer Nissan’s plant in Sunderland employs 7,000 people.

 

"Businesses like that need to stay ahead of the curve," said St Louis. "Next-generation technology is vital to things like automated factories and autonomous vehicles."

 

In December, Sunderland deployed 5G speeds over Wi-Fi, launching free 1Gbps connectivity in parts of the city centre, including on two tower blocks and in a primary school where previously connectivity was too slow to even stream video on some occasions. The connectivity is also being used for a sensor-based traffic management pilot.

 

5G use cases for Sunderland include digital city centre; smart homes; sporting excellence and major events; business start-up and scale-up; education, skills and learning; and industry 4.0.

 

St Louis says several events will be run in 2020 to show citizens what’s possible with high-speed connections. These could be around gaming, smart home or augmented reality.

 

Patrick Melia, chief executive at Sunderland City Council, said: “The continuing roll-out of our ultra-fast 5G network will augment Sunderland’s position as a global digital force and enhance opportunities for all across our smart city.”

 

Dublin in Ireland and Cascais in Portugal are examples of other cities which are trialling neutral host models for 5G.

 

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