Connecting rural communities is a particular challenge in emerging markets, as infrastructure frequently does not extend into the more remote corners of the landscape. However, advances in backhauling mean that operators are now able to extend coverage to remote regions more efficiently and cost-effectively. DT editor James Barton spoke to Richard Beckley of hosted networks specialist Globecomm to find out how this change is coming about.
DT: What are the challenges presented by rural locations? How can they be overcome?
RB: Remote locations present a lot of challenges to building out a network, with security and a steady AC power supply particular considerations - electricity is often very expensive and not readily available. For the growth of a population, you need to provide major infrastructures – roads, power, telecoms – and the technology today can now provide reliable and cost effective telecommunications. If you can provide voice communications for as low as half a penny a minute, then you can provide communications to communities where previously it just would not have made economic sense. Even countries that have rural telecoms funds have been reluctant to spend money without the right approach.
Particularly in Africa and the Middle East, operators have typically ignored rural communities and not provided service, and a prime reason for this is that they can’t get the backhaul cost effectively in place. In Africa it’s difficult to run fibre optics and keep them operational; satellite is the key backhaul element of any network - cables lend themselves to damage and theft.
DT: What then is pushing operators towards the rural markets?
RB: There are a few key factors; operators over the past few years have enjoyed growth in urban areas which is now beginning to level off, particularly in emerging markets. Typically there is a very large population base in rural communities, but no connectivity. In some areas operators have managed to avoid their licence requirements for some time – they are often obliged to cover around 90% of the territory (or the population). While many of them have not done so, a lot of operators are now addressing how to reach an untapped section of the population as well as meeting the mandates of their licences.
DT: What are the factors that have prevented them from providing this coverage in the past?
RB: Maintaining efficiency is not just a matter of technology – the knowledge base is necessary as well. Anyone can build a satellite system or a base station; managing the protocols and IP flows between the two might not be a major challenge but without a team with the right knowledge and background it becomes problematic. Operators are trying to outsource more elements of their engineering because they don’t have the expertise in-house themselves; they’re focused on customer acquisition and retention.
DT: How do operators want their rural networks to be structured?
RB: We worked with a carrier in Alaska which wanted to build communications services to 200 villages and small towns across the state. The only common connectivity is satellite so we designed a standalone telecoms networks that comprised of the switch, the emergency dialling, such that when the satellite system is down - which can happen for a few days at a time at those latitudes – the network in the village is a standalone system for local communications and emergency services. When the satellite comes up there is an automatic synchronisation with essential network operations in Anchorage.
When you’re building and designing a system like that, obviously IP technology is very critical for the efficiencies – not just in terms of backhaul connectivity and cost, but also for software uploads and over the air activations. You have to do this in a software-defined mode over the air; you can’t go to 200 villages for a physical upgrade, so you need to select the different technologies, components and elements that would build the network, then integrate it to the carrier’s urban infrastructure and make this function efficiently.
DT: How can operators in emerging markets provide cost-effective rural coverage?
RB: Operators will typically have a licence, and will be looking to provide triple-play (occasionally quad-play) services. When building a rural network, it’s cost effective to manage remotely; the bandwidth is not an issue, what’s important is where you’re taking the traffic. Is it long distance or local? How are you going to move it? Taking it over long distances will start to eat into bandwidth costs.
Using today’s IP protocols, the efficiencies that have come along in the past five years or so have resulted in being able to deliver a voice packet for less than half a penny a minute, which is very cost effective. That enables you to reach very remote areas, and with technology that can essentially be solar-powered; the new IP technology in both satellite modems and base station architectures needs far less power to drive the output.
DT: Does green power also help in reducing the costs?
RB: It depends on what you’re looking to achieve, and the capability and capacity. You can have a single pole-mounted outdoor base station that requires less than 30 watts of input power, but gives you a macro coverage solution in an area that is passively cooled, so does not require air conditioning. If you combine that with – for example - an iDirect KU-band modem, you’ve got a product set that can be deployed for under $10,000. You’ve got efficiencies between the two that require a 40-45 watt power input that give you the coverage in any remote location. You can solar power that, and very cost-effectively provide rural services.
DT: How can bandwidth sharing be capitalised on to drive down costs?
RB: It’s important when designing networks to look at how you can optimise the system and share the bandwidth. For example, in a market large enough to span different time zones, you can share bandwidth across the multiple time zones for greater efficiency. Ten years ago, an operator would provide 2 megabits of bandwidth to every base station regardless of where it was or whether it was using it. That’s very inefficient – 2 megabits of bandwidth a month would cost around $8000 just for the backhauling whether the base station was in use or not. Now the bandwidth costs have come down and the efficiencies have improved drastically, so we’re able to share that bandwidth across multiple sites.
Typically if you build out a network in an urban area, particularly in a business district, it will be in use from around 7am to 6pm. Beyond those times, particularly at weekends, the bandwidth isn’t in use, so if you share it with a diverse set of base stations in areas where bandwidth would be in demand at weekends – major residential areas, the beach - you’re dynamically using the bandwidth wherever it’s required for total efficiency. If you share this across a different time zone – i.e. somewhere with a different ‘busy hour’ – it allows for greater efficiency. You essentially create a trunk group of base stations and you can share a piece of bandwidth across multiple sites.