Rural Communities Need Investments in Small Cell Backhaul to Narrow the Digital Divide as World Ramps Up to 5G

06 Jul 2016

Limited small cell backhaul spending through 2020 threatens many rural and remote communities to fall further behind in the post-information age of mobile broadband Internet access, while metropolitan connectivity moves to 5G speeds. ABI Research forecasts cumulative small cell backhaul links to rural and remote communities to top 220 thousand through 2020, with equipment revenue reaching more than US$ 300 million. Advancements in small cell and wireless backhaul technologies can lower total cost of ownerships (TCOs), attract stakeholders, and avoid widening the urban versus rural digital divide.     

“For rural access, small cells offer adequate capacity at lower costs and smaller sizes,” says Ahmed Ali, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. “They eliminate the need for macro deployments and cut the cost of equipment and installation in rural areas. Adopting features like mobile edge computing and local applications can improve the quality of service for customers and the ROI for operators.”

A challenging aspect of rural connectivity is the backhaul. There are several wireless backhaul options suitable for rural deployments, but sub-6 GHz is best for its flexibility to overcome obstacles in harsh environments and hard-to-reach locations. Satellite systems are also a good alternative, as their global coverage makes them accessible to a wider range of applications, including isolated locations, moving vehicles, and temporary deployments.

Yet, despite the accessibility of satellite backhaul for many rural and remote use cases, the technology is not free of cost and latency setbacks. “Although satellite links are experiencing relatively slower growth, more collaboration among the mobile operators, small cell vendors, and satellite operators will undoubtedly lead to enhancing the technology and increasing the adoption rate,” continues Ali.

ABI Research forecasts the cumulative sub-6 GHz rural small cell backhaul links through 2020 will dominate with 46% of total links deployed, followed by microwave and satellite.

”The use of multiple backhaul solutions is crucial in order for operators to offset the high cost of extending the backhaul network,” concludes Ali. “While backhaul technologies continue to develop, small cells have proven, and will continue, to be suitable for rural and remote radio access.”

These findings are from ABI Research’s Rural Small Cells (“How to Connect the Next Billion”). This report is part of the company’s Future Networks sector, which includes research, data, and analyst insights.

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