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Is 5G the silver bullet for rural areas?

Since its inception, 5G has been touted as a technology that favoured dense urban deployments.  However, in light of recent evidence this article looks at how suitable 5G is to bridge the digital  divide in rural areas. 

A few years ago, 5G was the darling of densely populated urban centres promising to transform the  way we live, work and play through its high capacity, multi gigabit and ultra-low latency capability.  This achieved through the deployment of dense small cell networks. 

Fast forward to today, and we haven’t quite seen the urban transformation that was promised by 5G.  The reason for this is simple – it is down to network economics. Simply put, there isn’t enough demand  or the use cases to justify the cost of deploying dense 5G networks in urban areas, yet.  

Intelligence Consulting has spoken to many technology providers, mobile operators and neutral host  providers over the last few months and they all agree. 

5G is like Cinderella’s Glass Slipper 

The catch with 5G is that it’s like Cinderella’s glass slipper – 5G is the glass slipper and we’re looking  for ‘use cases’ to fit the technology retrospectively. Despite over GBP 150 million being committed by  the UK Government to 5G test bed projects we still haven’t found a use case for 5G that has both mass  market benefit and which is commercially sustainable without public subsidy. 

Instead, and quite rightly so, mobile operators have therefore been incremental upgrading their 4G  macro networks to offer limited 5G services which is cheaper than investing in standalone dense 5G  small cell networks. 

Add to the mix Covid-19 which has resulted in rural and suburban home workers that need broadband connectivity that is on par with cities. According to Ofcom rural premises are ten times less likely than  urban premises to get a decent broadband.


1Source: Connected Nations Report. Ofcom, March 2020

In the meantime, and against all the odds, rural 5G use cases are starting to emerge. 

With all that in mind it makes sense to ask if 5G is the silver bullet to connect rural areas. There are a  number of reasons to suggest why. 

Network economics associated with 5G FWA are more favourable than fibre 

First, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) operators are already providing high speed broadband connectivity  to areas poorly served by fibre or 4G. According to Ofcom it can cost anywhere between GBP 2,000 to  GBP 2,500 to serve a rural property with a dedicated fibre connection. Based on figures obtained by  Intelligens Consulting from one FWA provider, the network economics are significantly more  favourable when compared to fibre to the premise making FWA more favourable for deployment in  rural areas.

5G enabled FWA can reduce costs further. It works by replacing the expensive fibre backhaul with a  5G wireless connection which connectsto a device located within end user premises. In turn end users  are offered WiFi connectivity around the home or business premises. 

Intelligens Consulting estimates that commercially led deployment of fixed gigabit connectivity is  expected to reach around 76% of all UK premises.35G FWA could successfully connect those premises  in the final 24% where it is not commercially feasible to deploy fibre. 

5G FWA a steppingstone to broader 5G deployments in rural areas 

Another benefit of this approach is that 5G FWA networks can be used as a steppingstone to broader  5G deployments across rural areas. 

The clearance of and soon to be auctioned 700 MHz spectrum will also help with this. The 700 MHz  spectrum band is ideal for carrying cellular signals over long distances, ideal for increasing 5G coverage  across rural areas.  

In the future 5G will eventually be able to use much higher spectrum bands (millimetre wave bands  like 26 GHz and above) giving access to greater spectrum. This additional spectrum means that there  will be more capacity for data traffic and greater download speeds as demonstrated by recent trials  undertaken by Ericsson, Qualcomm and U.S. Cellular.

FWA is faster to deploy than fibre in rural areas 

A further benefit of FWA is that it will be faster to deploy and connect end users than traditional fibre deployment methods as it avoids lengthy civils works to lay the fibre network, with service activation  taking days rather than months.  

Successful 5G mmWave data call was completed using a 5G-enabled device at a distance of more than 5km  and speeds greater than 100Mbps demonstrating mmWave ’s ability to support 5G FWA for rural communities.  Source: extended-range-5g-data-call-over-mmwave

The use of neutral host networks will also allow mobile operators to benefit from a reduced total cost  of ownership as neutral host providers finance the build of passive (and in some cases active) mobile  network components.  

One area where neutral host providers can play a role is in the deployment of small cells. Typically,  the preserve of urban densification, small cells may be considered in rural population clusters, e.g.  towns, villages and hamlets. Deploying a small cell in a rural area would be cheaper than deploying a  cell tower by a significant margin making it a more commercially feasible approach.5 Deploying small  cells would also face less local planning objections compared to siting new ‘tall’ towers.6 

There is a clear role for 5G to address the digital divide in rural areas 

In conclusion, there is a noticeably clear role for 5G to address the digital divide in rural areas and it  should be a consideration in the overall digital infrastructure mix. End user demand is high favouring early deployment, and demand is likely to remain strong for the foreseeable providing a stable  commercial case for deployment. 

Intelligens Consulting Ltd is a boutique telecoms advisor providing investors, operators and policy  makers with technical, strategic and commercial advice, with a global client base. Its Founding  Director, Iqbal Singh Bedi is described as part of an elite group of people that has offered professional  advice to the UK’s Prime Minister and Scotland’s First Minister. Intelligens Consulting’s research has  also been used to inform the House of Lords on 5G policy. 

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