Rural areas will benefit from £30 million of new UK Government funding announced recently. Under the guise of encouraging 5G, specific research and development projects have been given the stimulus to trial and evaluate small cell deployments which offer the potential to address the problem of poor rural coverage with the latest technology. Several UK and US companies are involved.
A rural small cell is a low power mobile phone base station designed to bring mobile phone service to small pockets of population in remote rural areas. These could be hamlets, small villages or industrial sites.
Unlike large cell towers which can transmit many tens of kilometers, the low power of rural small cells allows them to operate without a diesel generator or mains electricity. Solar and wind power, combined with batteries, can sustain these units indefinitely. The lower cost of satellite transmission makes off-grid small cells commercial viable, even in developing countries.
Rural small cells are similar to urban metrocells in that they are designed to be robust and operate in unsupervised outdoor locations. Their difference is the coverage range, typically 1-2 km, achieved through a combination of elevated antenna/mast and higher RF transmit power.
The cost of a rural small cell can be 80% less than a full size basestation, with low operating costs achieved by avoiding expensive site visits, including those to refill diesel fuel (a significant cost in remote areas).
Small cells bring the prospect of voice and data mobile service to remote areas in both developing and developed countries, previously denied due to the high cost. Many villages, homesteads and farms can now benefit from the latest smartphones and internet services throughout the globe.
Perhaps its not entirely co-incidence that the Chalke Valley in southern England is not only a very beautiful area but also one of the largest populated mobile not-spots in the country. Since none of the four mobile networks provide service, the locals have setup a Community Interest Company to build and operate their own small cell network to bring both universal mobile service and fixed wireless broadband for all.
Today, UK network operator EE showcased three innovative and complementary ways to provide temporary 4G service in case of outages due to flooding, major incidents and perhaps even for planned events. Adopting a three tier approach, these solutions encompass three different types of vehicle fitted with onboard small cells: rapid response pickup trucks, hexacopters and helium-filled heli-kites. Any of these could make a huge difference by restoring communication when disaster strikes.
The TIP held its first major summit event a few weeks ago. The initial thrust is about using innovation including opensource cellular technology to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote places throughout the world. The longer term scope could be bigger. Major multi-national businesses are fully engaged. Many of the principles of Small Cell technology and operation have been adopted. This paints a very different picture of the next steps for cellular investment than purely super high speed 5G.
There are still quite a few areas of the US without any cellular service, even if you ignore Alaska. The FCC has announced a major shift in how $4.5 Billion will be allocated over the next 10 years to address the issue. How will this be used and what are the new rules?
EE has set itself the goal to expand geographic coverage throughout the UK. A key plank of that strategy is to install rural small cells to serve isolated communities. I visited three trial sites in Wales to understand how these systems have been installed and what impact they’ve made to the local population. Parallel Wireless who provided the equipment introduced me to local users and explained how the system worked.
Having visited the sparsely populated north of Scotland a few months ago, I saw clear evidence of poor cellular service as perceived by the local community. As with many countries, the UK suffers from limited coverage in more rural areas. Deploying new spectrum may seem to be a quick fix, and may satisfy regulators, but might not answer the whole problem.