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Community Built 5G Mobile Broadband Goes Live in Chalke Valley

Thursday, August 13th, 2020 (10:41 am) - Score 1,460

At present many homes in the Chalke Valley (Wiltshire, England) suffer from slow fixed broadband speeds and extremely weak mobile signals, but a new Government funded community project – Ch4lke Mobile – is finally starting to change that by building their own 4G and 5G based mobile broadband network.

The project, which has taken inspiration from how B4RN built their own “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband ISP network in parts of remote rural England, has been in development for a few years now. But in February 2020 they secured a crucial public investment of £2,359,762 as part of the MONeH Consortium under the Government’s £30m Rural Connected Communities (RCC) programme (here).

In case you wondered, MONeH stands for Multi Operator Neutral Host, which “aims to demonstrate how multi-operator, neutral host cellular networks based upon small cell technology can be used to provide multiple user slices, serving different customer groups within rural areas with little or no coverage.”

The project, which also makes use of Ofcom’s new local access licences (here) – allowing smaller organisations to create their own mobile networks, is working to establish new mobile networks in areas such as the Chalke Valley (Wiltshire), Preston Bissett (Buckinghamshire) and Lucknam Park (near Bath).

On of the first villages to benefit from this new community-built mobile network is Bowerchalke, which is home to around 400 people. Some in the community can get reasonably good broadband speeds via ADSL2+ or FTTC, while others struggle to get much above 1-2Mbps and mobile signals are a big problem. At least they were a problem, because the new Ch4lke Mobile network is now starting to make progress.

James Body, CEO of Telet Research (Ch4lke’s Technical Architect), told ISPreview.co.uk:

“[The] current benchmark costs for providing mobile coverage to a single house in a not-spot is around £5k per house (Mobile Infrastructure Project *and* Scottish Government 4G Infill Project). Comparative costs for the current Shared Rural Network (SRN) – assuming that all the planned coverage *is* achieved by end of 2025 – will be around £3,700 per house.

We are aiming to come in at less than £1k per house – with costs falling further with subsequent rollouts.”

The plan is to provide a 5G non-standalone configuration with a narrow 4G waveform, optimised for area coverage, in Band 3 (1800MHz) – aggregated with a localised 5G NR (New Radio) waveform in Band n38 (2600MHz) “giving higher speed” broadband coverage in areas where there is demand for higher bandwidth.

In order to access this service locals will need to use SIM cards with an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) assigned based on a UK Mobile Network Code from Ofcom. The roaming element means that you can still get online and make or receive calls/texts via Three UK, Vodadone, O2 and EE (BT) when within the area.

Admittedly most communities won’t have access to the same level of technical expertise as those in Bowerchalke do, but the hope is that this model can be refined and then exported for use in other parts of the UK. We should point out that the cells and masts being deployed are supplied with data via a new locally built fibre optic network. A lot of the hardware and software has also come from CellXica in Cambridge.

UPDATE 14th August 2020

Just to clarify, Ch4lke only issue their own local SIMs for fixed price Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) connectivity. All other users operate with local roaming using multi operator neutral host functionality with normal SIMs. This simplifies the settlement/revenue collection considerably and keeps the MNOs happy because Ch4lke are not “stealing” their customers.

Leave a Comment
7 Responses
  1. Avatar A_Builder says:

    Very interesting solution.

    Hope it works for them.

    But as you say at the end fibre you the mast is still needed.

    Is there any provision in the network architecture to provide break outs for FTTP? If universal gig is going to become a thing then it has to hang off something….

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    Good to see some communities embracing technology instead of trying to stop it, as soon as mobile and masts are mentioned here, it’s tin foil hats and objections.

  3. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

    £2.4m! Who’s the business person with government ties running this operation I wonder? Probably another one with Serco written all over it. I really wonder how much of the funding will go towards the equipment and operating setup costs, after the other 3/4 of it goes into “consultancy” fees.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      We’re talking about a community project that is effectively creating an entirely new approach (a lot of what they’re doing are “firsts”), which will of course cost money while you’re in the R&D phase. R&D is not cheap, but as James points out in the article, the end result will be a much cheaper way of delivering wireless broadband and mobile into rural communities. Saving money.

    2. Avatar James Body says:

      Do not underestimate the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears involved in assembling all of the component pieces required to make this work!

      Interestingly, the technical bits are the easiest to deal with – the commercial;/political and bureaucratic challenges that need to be dealt with are much more time consuming and difficult!

      The aim of this project is to architect and demonstrate a working practical solution that is both technically and commercially viable and then can be replicated in many other locations. Unless the whole thing can self-support itself financially at the end of the project period it will have not be classed as a success (in my eyes).

  4. Avatar Rob says:

    2.3 million for a new mobile start-up?
    NIMBY’s are the biggest problem for mobile operators. If there’s no high vantage point for antennas then there will have to be a mast – always an unsightly issue.
    I think this was the intention of UK Broadband? BTS’s covering villages etc.
    There seems to be a lot of startups taking advantage of government handouts.

    1. Avatar JAMES BODY says:

      In the conventional ‘Old World’ an investor would be looking at a minimum investment in high tens of £millions to set up a new MNO – and that is before factoring in the cost of spectrum. I think that what we are doing is definitely on the ‘economical’ side of that!

      As a long term resident of the beautiful Chalke Valley, I am certainly NOT a supporter of 30m towers appearing on our rolling hilltops to blight the view. Also, due to the nature of the local geography, it is extremely difficult to illuminate the entire Valley with coverage. Our solution of deploying small cells to WHERE THE PEOPLE LIVE is much more effective at providing coverage where users spend most of their time, viz, in their homes. The local AONB Team are members of our consortium and are strong supporters of a solution that does NOT involve large masts.

      Also, because the coverage area of each cell is so much smaller, the number of users sharing each one is much smaller than that found on conventional macro cells, so contention/performance is better.

      Does UK Broadband have a policy on MOBILE coverage?

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