Sunday 5 April 2015

Rural and Remote coverage back in spotlight

The Small Cell Forum recently launched its Release 5: Rural & Remote to address the growing concern of especially rural coverage that is plaguing many developed nations.

The release contains 16 new and updated documents ranging from case studies of small cells already used in a range of rural and remote settings, through to those covering backhaul, deployment challenges, architectures and the services that can be enabled by small cells.
From my point of view, backhaul is one of the biggest challenge for the rural and remote coverage. As I have discussed in an earlier post here, satellites are a good option for rural small cells. The main issue with satellites is latency which could be around 0.5 seconds which may make them unsuitable for voice and other real time applications. Another option being trialled are Balloons and Drones as I have discussed in another post here.

The Australian operator Telstra is rolling out small cells in around 50 rural areas. While the small cells would be good for 4G data, they wouldnt be available for voice. While I do not have the details on what backhaul they are using and the voice issues could be more of VoLTE support on handsets, I am sure the users would appreciate the data coverage. If latency is not an issue then they could use OTT services like Skype, Whatsapp, Viber for voice.

The UK operator EE has been working with Parallel Wireless to use innovative mesh backhauling. Part of the licensed spectrum (20MHz chunk of EE‘s 1800MHz LTE spectrum) could be used for backhaul which would be different from the access network for the end users. The meshing allows in theory for the small cell to macro connection, with a couple of hops, be as much as 30km.

As I have mentioned in a post earlier, Vodafone UK has its own Rural Sure Signal program. Vodafone claims to have received hundreds of applications from communities across the length and breadth of the UK. Following a trial covering 12 towns and villages, it has now announced the first 30 communities selected to join the programme, which it is hoped will enhance everyday life for consumers and make it easier to do business in rural areas. There is a plan to continue this program for the rest of this year.

ThinkSmallCell has an interesting article where it asks if the drive towards the rural coverage is operator driven or regulator mandated. While it is a combination of both is most developed countries, in some developing nations it can just be that people are desperate and will find their own way. One example is people in remote villages in Mexico that are installing open source base stations from NuRAN to provide coverage to their villages. Another example is Nepal, where villagers are banding together to provide WiFi coverage to rural areas.

Opensource is another concept argues ThinkSmallCell that may also be an opportunity to connect some of the most remote and unserved communities which commercial organisations haven't been able to reach. It may also be useful for experiments and for colleges and universities with limited budgets. PA consultants have shown how to create a 2G base station using Raspberry-Pi. I have a feeling that we will see more projects like these soon.

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