Wednesday 20 June 2018

Huawei's RuralStar: Taking the fight to low cost small cell vendors

Last year, Huawei announced their small cell / mini-macro product for rural and urban areas. The following is from their initial announcement:

Huawei’s RuralStar base station can reduce the time to recover the investment to less than five years, compared with more than ten years for traditional rural sites Zhang said. The new site cuts power consumption by 85 per cent and lowers total costs by 70 per cent, the company said.

The vendor is having discussions with a number of operators in Africa and Asia about deploying RuralStar sites. Zhang is optimistic there will be strong demand, but noted the new site won’t represent a large percentage of total base station production.

The Huawei executive said urban areas also face many challenges in deploying base stations including high rental fees, difficulty in finding appropriate sites and slow deployments, which can take at least one month.

To overcome these, Huawei developed PoleStar, which can be installed on lamp posts and a variety of other locations in a matter of hours. Zhang said operators can take advantage of more than 1 billion lamp posts, 10 million bus stops and 10 million phone booths around the world to deploy new base stations more cost effectively.

A PoleStar deployment in Thailand using existing traffic and light posts significantly reduced the site footprint, which led to a 66 per cent cut in rental costs. 

It soon became RuralStar 2.0:

Huawei released RuralStar2.0, an innovative site solution in terms of transmission, infrastructure, base station design, and energy. This solution addresses increasing demands for voice and data services from the unconnected and increases operator ROI for rural network deployment. This solution fulfills the following rural MBB requirements: 2G, 3G, or 4G rural MBB networks providing rates of over 10 Mbit/s at cell edges and cell coverage of 5 km; Extended 2G and 3G coverage at a maximum distance of 60 km from the nearest tower-mounted site, providing voice and data (over 1 Mbit/s at cell edges) services and cell coverage of 5 km.

In terms of transmission, RuralStar2.0 adopts non line of sight (NLOS) wireless backhaul, which eliminates rental costs of transmission equipment and significantly reduces OPEX compared with satellite or microwave transmission. NLOS wireless backhaul supports multi-hop backhaul, which allows for a maximum distance of over 60 km from the donor base station, extending network coverage. In terms of infrastructure, NLOS wireless backhaul switches high-rise towers used in traditional rural networks to low-rise poles, reducing site infrastructure costs by 70%. As for energy, low-power base stations and transmission equipment do not require diesel generators for power generation and require fewer solar panels and batteries, which slashes CAPEX by 70%. Using pure solar energy saves O&M costs, in turn greatly reducing OPEX.

Omnidirectional antennas are used to achieve targeted omnidirectional coverage in a single cell at low cost. For cells with insufficient coverage, innovative 90° high-gain antennas can be used to deploy the butterfly site solution. This solution reduces the number of sectors from three to two, the number of antennas and RRUs by 1/3, and total power consumption by 30% as well as the CAPEX and OPEX compared with traditional sites. For a given population in a target area, RuralStar2.0's innovations in these aspects reduce TCO by more than 50% compared with traditional site solutions.

RuralStar has been commercially deployed in many countries, including Ghana, Thailand, Algeria, and Nigeria. Mobile network coverage boosts local economic development and improves local people's lives.

At MWC, Huawei’s RuralStar solution has won GSMA’s "Best Mobile Innovation for Emerging Markets" award.

In Ghana, local villagers used to climb to rooftops and trees, or even ride a dozen kilometers to find telephone signals. RuralStar has addressed these issues. They can now use WhatsApp to communicate and share pictures at home. Transferring money and recharging call fees through Mobile Money have also become common in daily life.

RuralStar enables three transformations, transforming microwave or satellite transmission in traditional solutions to Relay, substituting simple poles for towers, and enabling a move from diesel generators for power supply to solar power. This shortens the return on investment (ROI) period for mobile communications in remote rural areas. Operators can then lower the threshold of profitability by 50%, which is a great help for emerging markets to bridge the digital divide.

There is also a user experience story from Ghana on a village that was transformed with the help of connectivity:

Over the past week, Afryea's friends were receiving more and more messages from her over WhatsApp - and all thanks to the installation of an amazing “wooden pole”.

Afryea is a teacher in a village located in a rural region of Ghana. Having had the privilege of studying in cities, Afryea is used to using WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram. However, she explains that it took her an inordinate amount of time to readjust to the life without these Apps after she returned to this village, as it rarely has any signal.

Afryea is now delighted to deliver the news to her friends that mobile services are becoming increasingly accessible for a surprisingly long list of devices in her village.

Nyakpoo, the village chief, explained to Afryea why people simply couldn't access the network: the nearest base station was more than 20 kilometers from here, so achieving signal reception was no easy task. Before the “wooden pole” base station was installed, the village chief himself often needed to ride his motorcycle a few miles to get closer to a base station in order to use Mobile Money.  "Since our village suffered from a lack of electricity and fibre optic cables, there was simply no other way to build a base station. I am amazed that all these issues can be solved with a simple piece of wood."

The RuralStar solution changes this. The solution uses a Relay based on 4G technology to realise data transmission, rather than expensive satellite or microwave. Relay transmission does not have the same line of sight (LOS) constraints, allowing a base station to be constructed on a simple wooden telegraph pole instead of a 30m dedicated tower. With low power consumption, RuralStar can be powered just by using six solar panels.

Afryea’s village was chosen as one of the first to implement RuralStar. The wooden pole to accommodate the base station is prepared locally in the village. The base station deployment was completed in just one week, with total costs reduced by around 70%, and the pole is now helping to deliver mobile services. Even with such a small population, the operator can expect to recoup the investment in just three years.

While I commend Huawei for developing a low cost solution for rural deployment, they are competing with several other small cell vendors competing for the same chunk of the market. It is also often of interest to the mobile operators to bring new vendors in rural areas where the requirement to meet KPIs is much lower. This way they can make sure that all the interfaces from their existing vendors are open and standards compliant too.

Finally, I have to mention that while the articles talks about power reduction, it is compared to the Huawei's macro products. Other small cell vendors may have even lower power and different innovations which may make them attractive for other scenarios.

Finally, Nokia has a similar solution for rural deployments. I blogged about the Nokia Kuha here.

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