Rural Small Cells: Operator driven or Regulator mandated

Rural LandscapeMany remote and rural communities don't enjoy good cellular coverage today, both in developed and developing countries. Small cells have offered a simple solution to this problem but had relatively little take-up until recently. We track some of the recent developments in this field.

Providing rural coverage in sparsely populated areas isn't nearly as attractive as within concentrated metropolitan cities. Few customers mean lower utilisation, costly cell towers, long backhaul connections and time consuming trips for maintenance are just some of the factors. There are different economic drivers between developed vs emerging economies, but demand from those unconnected and travelling through remains strong.

Governments and businesses are keen to move services online, but can't enforce this if broadband service isn't available everywhere. The UK tax collector has had to make an exception for some businesses who continue to send their tax returns by post despite mandating all are done online.

A UK initiative launched in 2012, awarded a contract worth £150 million of public funds to Arquiva to build out masts in areas with no coverage. At the end of 2014, only two masts had been commissioned and the program is unlikely to be extended. A Vodafone spokesman quoted a typical lead time of 12 months from concept to live service for a large rural site using this scheme. Apart from anything else, connecting a full three-phase power supply to some of these very remote sites is a major challenge.

This came to a head during Q4 2014 when a political storm arose reinforced by poor coverage in Shropshire, where politicians visited to canvas for an election and were unable to keep in touch.

As a solution, regulators encouraged national roaming between networks to plug the partial coverage not-spots. Arguing strongly against that, operators instead committed to wider coverage and received some reduction in spectrum charges to compensate.

Dramatic difference in statistics: population vs land mass coverage

We often hear of mobile coverage quoted in terms of population coverage. In the UK this is typically 97-99% for 2G, with 3G reaching over 85%.

However only around 80% of the UK land mass is served by any mobile network according to this latest Ofcom regulatory report - and that's for 2G voice and text services only. The deal agreed by all networks will increase this to 90% of the land mass covered with at least voice service by 2017.

Unsightly masts aren't the only solution

The initiative has raised concerns from conservationists worried about a proliferation of large masts.

Rather that focussing entirely on ever taller, unsightly and expensive towers, we're seeing greater activity to deploy a few small cells in villages and hamlets. Often the topology means that hills and valleys prevent signals from reaching those areas. Low cost and low power small cells are an effective solution and can be deployed much more quickly.

EE announced a plan to deploy 1,500 rural small cells from Parallel Wireless over the next three years. These can operate as LTE relays, extending the range and infill coverage from existing higher capacity macrocells. It's notable that they've chosen to use LTE rather than 3G, protecting their investment in the long term.

Vodafone had been well placed from successful early trials of their rural femtocell program, but only recently have ramped this up beyond a few villages. They've branded this as ROSS (Rural Outdoor Sure Signal). Their rollout program will initially address 100 communities, and is 3G based.

The US rural telephone landscape evolves to mobile

US regulatory policy allows small independent telcos to serve their local areas, often supporting the major networks via national roaming. Some, such as Alaska, have invested in high speed fibre to fairly remote areas and also installed smaller cells in relatively sparsely populated areas.

US landlines have been declining at a rate of 700,000 a month as more people switch to using mobile only.

The majority of US children are growing up in households that don't have landlines (52.1%), with 43% of adults nationally relying only on cellphones. Where cables are not already in the ground, delivering service via mobile networks should be cheaper and provide a more comprehensive, mobile service.

A strange side-effect of the switch to mobile has been a distortion in telephone polls where only landlines are called. It's against the rules to run these random polls using mobile phone numbers, so the sample is skewed especially in rural areas.

Developing markets have a lower price point

It's even more difficult in emerging economies where consumers can't afford expensive solutions. In some cases, communities are taking things into their own hands and building their own networks. We described building a very simple GSM service from opensource hardware and software in a recent article, concluding that its preferable to use commercial products and networks where practicable, but they offer an alternative where there is no other viable option.

Backhaul is a particular problem and many turn to satellite as the only feasible technology. We've discussed the introduction of lower cost, higher bandwidth satellite services in the past. These do make it viable to serve remote areas and can be used during initial rollout to provide instant connectivity. Later, those sites with higher traffic and/or more feasible terrestrial alternatives can be upgraded to use them as and when appropriate. Satellite links can then remain as a backup in case of outage – the cost of the remote modem is remarkably low.

Sometime regulatory action is required where it is uneconomic to deliver service to poorer communities, stipulating minimum landmass rather than just population coverage requirements as a condition of the spectrum licence. Alternatively, as we have seen proposed in Mexico, specific bands can be set aside for community self-installed standalone networks.

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