Rural or remote networks – global challenges and needs may be similar, but regional approaches can be significantly different

As we kicked off our work as the Independent Assessor for the UK’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) Initiative, it’s important to look not only close to home, but to see what is being done with rural coverage in other parts of the world. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn, or things we can share from our own experience in the UK.

Recent forecasts from the SRN initiative predict that 4G coverage from at least one mobile network operator (MNO) will increase to over 90%  geographic coverage for all of the home nations, while coverage in England and Northern Ireland will ramp up to 98% geographic coverage, Wales 95%, and Scotland 91%. Together, this adds up to an increase from 91% coverage pre-SRN to 95% once the sharing associated with project has been fully deployed.

Across the world, 4G wireless access is available in an impressive 95 percent of urban areas. This drops to 71 percent in rural areas. This gets even worse when looking at developing and lower developed nations: According to a recent ITU report, in lower developed countries, 17 percent of the rural population has no mobile coverage at all, and 19 percent of the rural population is only covered by a 2G network.

Although that is the most important, in terms of measuring a digital divide, the provision of a full service is not simply a question of where people live, but the areas through which they travel or work. We’ve seen estimates suggesting that only 25 percent of the earth’s landmass is served by mobile networks today. That figure drops to only 10 percent of the planet, if you include the oceans.

What are nations doing to standardise, to regulate or to facilitate these ‘gaps’ to be plugged?  Well, quite rightly, when it comes to nations they are, firstly, prioritising getting coverage to their disenfranchised rural communities.

Secondly, there is connectivity supporting the needs of public infrastructure: networks serving remote essential national or international emergency services or industries of national importance (energy utilities being a key one), connectivity for transport across remote areas.

And thirdly, there are (increasingly private) networks serving businesses or venues, the hardest to reach areas: (air)ports, mines, manufacturing facilities.

As an EU-wide initiative, Rural SMEs supports innovation in local businesses in rural areas and ensuring the comms infrastructure is available is a key part of this. Increasingly, we are likely to see more specialist providers like Northern Spain’s WIFINOR that are focused on filling this gap and providing services to rural communities and businesses using a mix of technologies.

In Japan, Softbank has been proactive in its strategy for serving rural and remote communities (roughly 80 percent of Japan is mountainous!) and last year agreed with KDDI to form a joint venture specifically aimed at accelerating the roll out of 5G to rural communities.

Sometimes though, these initiatives need the weight of regulators behind them to ensure they deliver – since they may not be commercially prioritised by MNOs:

The Peruvian government specifies the needs of rural coverage as part of its spectrum licensing requirements – tackling the fact that 80 percent of its localities were rural and lacked any internet coverage (in 2016). Even back in 2013, the Peruvian authorities stipulated, in its contract with Telefonica: “Free access to Social Internet (Satellite) in 661 highest impoverished districts and 396 TAMBOS (Rural development and distribution centres)”

In the US, around ten years ago, the FCC allocated spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band and experimented with spectrum sharing to enable what it called its Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS). CBRS is a flexible licensed model of network provision, ultimately enabling the delivery of private, localised networks. It’s been slow to take off, but with more 5G friendly spectrum recently been made available the spectrum auctions last year attracted significant interest in networks ready to provide private 5G-ready services.

Australia is an interesting case study with its extremely dispersed communities (one of the lowest population densities in the world). The national Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications reviews the country’s rural (or ‘regional’) telecommunications needs every 3 years (the 2021 review is currently underway), and alongside that it runs a program to tackle mobile black spots under which it funds 1200 new base stations rolled out to deliver improved (or any!) coverage. Australia realises this is supporting the opportunities of otherwise disenfranchised communities, but also important for delivering public (emergency) services particularly in areas prone to natural disasters.

We believe that spectrum sharing and private network provision can offer opportunities to deliver services to rural and remote areas, where traditional network services and operator models would fail any normal business case for investment. If you want to find out more about our work in advising the UK’s Shared Rural Network Initiative, or want to talk about your own ‘local’ challenges in getting coverage where it’s needed, then get in touch.