Rural mobile infrastructure has yet to catch up to the increasingly widening 5G footprint in urban and suburban markets. The current focus on 5G, which primarily focuses on urban and suburban deployments, has occupied much of the attention of the cellular industry for the past several years. Sadly, that can be juxtaposed against a dramatically different deployment environment for rural markets, in which finding any kind of cellular signal can be a challenge. According to the ITU, nearly half of the world’s population remains unconnected to any kind of Internet connectivity.
Lack of suitable infrastructure has traditionally represented one of the biggest barriers to rural telecommunications infrastructure deployments. According to the IEEE, deploying networks in rural areas can be 2 to 3 times more expensive than in urban areas. Exacerbating matters, with rural populations generally less affluent and more dispersed than in urban areas, limited revenue growth prospects pose yet another challenge for operators looking to earn a return on their investments in rural infrastructure.
However, there are signs that the industry’s focus is slowly but surely turning to rural solutions. A case in point is Huawei’s commercial launch of its RuralStar Pro solution for underserved areas, after a successful trial in the Maopo Village of China’s Guizhou Province, a place whose often foggy valleys make microwave backhaul impractical. RuralStar instead uses a wireless LTE connection for backhaul, making it much more suitable for rural deployment than base stations that require fiberoptic cable to be deployed.
Pro is the third version of the RuralStar offering, following the original in 2018 and RuralStar Lite in 2019. At about 600 kg, Pro is less than a quarter the size of the previous cabinet-based RuralStar product, making it much more feasible to deploy. The new generation of rural mobile infrastructure also increasingly use solar power, which makes them much more cost-effective and less susceptible to theft compared to previous diesel-powered solutions.
The RuralStar portfolio helps Huawei extend to other geographies a solution that it needed to build for its domestic Chinese market, whose population is roughly 40% rural. Exporting these solutions to emerging markets, particularly in Africa and Latin America, where Internet penetration levels remain significantly behind global averages, should provide Huawei an opportunity to mine new growth opportunities – while simultaneously helping to bridge the digital divide.
Bridging rural digital divides
The current portfolio of rural infrastructure focuses primarily on extending 3G or 4G/LTE networks in many developing markets. However, there are signs that even that may be changing soon. Research from the IEEE shows that a 5G system can provide broadband rural connectivity as far away as 50 kilometers from a base station in rural settings by making use of mid-band (3.5 GHz) spectrum, high towers and high power levels.
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Other experiments using spectrum bands formerly used for VHF and UHF TV signals, were able to provide up to 100 Mbps of throughput as far away as 50 kilometers from the tower.
With developments like these, it is becoming increasingly possible to envision a 5G coverage map that covers rural and remote regions – and not just the urban and suburban areas it typically covers now.