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If you live in the city chances are you enjoy relatively fast broadband connectivity to the Internet. However, if you enjoy the fresh air and remoteness of country life, staying connected at least digitally is not quite so easy. Rural communities in most countries have slower access and higher costs than people living in cities.



When it comes to technology, the cost of deploying broadband access technology to sparsely populated areas does not make any revenue for the operator, and even maintaining cellular infrastructure in areas which only generate a few hundred minutes of use each month, make expanding coverage a hard sell.


Operators are often forced into providing coverage to rural areas by government regulation and only a single operator will cover a region. Hence, the digital divide continues to grow globally. In general, governments should facilitate collaboration between operators in case where there is no  infrastructure and/or analyse the convenience of enforcing infrastructure sharing in specific cases. Having said that, steps are underway to narrow this gap on a global scale. For instance, APEC nations are taking significant steps to develop ICT infrastructure so they can bring broadband Internet to rural areas of member nations. The ambitious goal of APEC economies is to have access to next generation high speed broadband by 2020. One country that clearly shows signs of narrowing the digital divide is Vietnam.


According to the World Bank, increasing Internet access by 10% will bring 1.3% economic growth to Vietnam. The country’s government realises this and is doing everything to develop broadband infrastructure. By 2010, 26% of Vietnam’s population in 4,300 communes had universal access to telephone and Internet services and 97% of communes had public telephone access points. India is another economy which is experiencing a surge in rural Internet users. According to the Internet and mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the number of rural Internet users was 29 million in 2011 and is forecast to reach 45 million by 2012. The penetration of Internet users in rural India has grown from 2.6% in 2010 to 4.6% in 2012, a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 73%.  

According to the GSMA, India will become the second largest mobile broadband market globally within the next four years with 367 million mobile broadband connections by 2016. In doing so, India will overtake the United States, which will account for 337 million mobile broadband connections by 2016, but will still be second to China, which will have reached 639 million mobile broadband connections in the same period. Since 3G licenses were first awarded to mobile operators in India in 2010, mobile broadband connectivity has grown steadily.

There are now more than 10 million HSPA connections across the country and this is expected to grow exponentially by 900% to 100 million connections in 2014. This will make India the largest HSPA market worldwide within the next two years, surpassing China, Japan and the United States in the process. “The mobile industry in India is set for immense growth as mobile broadband technologies such as HSPA and LTE start to proliferate, but there is scope for far greater development,” says Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA.


According to GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence service, despite a large rural population, mobile growth in India is being largely driven by more affluent communities in cities. Net additions in urban areas reached 85 million last year compared to 57 million in rural areas, with mobile penetration increasing by 20% in urban areas to 161%, against a 6.5% rise in rural areas to 36.6%. The provision of mobile broadband in rural and remote areas of India will not only bridge the country’s telephony divide and help join the growing mobile broadband ecosystem, it will also contribute to the social agenda of bridging the digital divide.

Despite the fact the benefits of broadband are profound – in opening up young minds to new horizons; in empowering women through genuine choices; in improving hygiene and health care. Also, in helping family breadwinners find better work, broadband penetration in rural areas remain low. For example, Ghana has a population of 24.3 million but only 1,297,000 people, representing 5.3% have access to broadband. The limited availability of infrastructure has been a key factor that has constrained the roll-out and affordability of broadband in sub-Saharan Africa. Though a number of submarine and terrestrial cable projects have come on stream, connecting sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world, there are huge numbers of people in the region that are unable to connect.

Research carried out by the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation (CTO) suggests following the deployment of Ka-band satellites, a relatively new technology in developing markets, satellite could be the most viable way to offer ubiquitous broadband access in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, low cost satellite networks complement in a practical way the terrestrial and submarine cable networks and enhance the broadband delivery ecosystem. Satellite broadband is the key to achieving rural access, as it is not hampered by the challenges faced by fibre networks. Satellite broadband, particularly through Ka–band satellites, could play an important role in meeting African governments’ broadband targets, such as increasing broadband penetration to approximately 80% of Africans by 2020.

The CTO’s CEO, Professor Tim Unwin, says: “The latest generation of Ka-band satellites will be able to provide a far more cost effective solution than the existing C-band and Ku-band. This dispels the idea that satellite is expensive, but in fact provides a complementary technology to fibre and mobile in enabling broadband access across Africa.” According to the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, with just under one third of the world’s population online, a sustained and concerted global effort is needed to extend the benefits of broadband to underserved and marginalized communities everywhere.

Broadband Internet

Although there are many competing technologies for last mile rural connectivity including WiMax, ADSL, and Satellite, all these technologies require additional investment by the operator in terms of CPE (Customer Premise Equipment). Only 3G/LTE cellular technology removes the burden of maintaining CPE, and generally this and ADSL broadband using existing copper cabling has been adopted as the last mile solution for most rural installation with the backhaul using other technologies.   

Rural Network Co-Location

In some rural locations such as India and Tanzania the concept of network co-location using shared independent and non competing backhaul operator is possible. In these markets rural backhaul and last mile access is shared across all operators, removing the cost to deploy the same infrastructure multiple times. The benefit to the environment is a reduction in the amount infrastructure required and also consumer choice amongst operators. For the operators off loading maintenance and support to a third party allows operators to control OPEX costs.  

Take Ericsson for instance, the vendor has implemented a rural business model that leverages the advantages of infrastructure sharing and open access in the regions of Lindi and Mtwara, in southeast Tanzania. Rural Netco, a company owned in part by Ericsson, provides “neutral” GSM network services to existing operators in the two regions, which are currently underserved. The main idea is to reduce the inherent risk to operators of entering into these areas by taking away the operational and financial risks, which would be assumed by Rural Netco.

The company would receive roaming revenues from operators’ users in the area and will not offer retail services in order to keep its “neutrality.” This arrangement would be transparent to users, as long as their handsets work on the frequency that has been assigned to the company (900MHz). The scheme seems to attract operators. They would reduce their capital and operations expenditures, as well as increase their subscriber base and traffic revenues. Users in many locations would have access to mobile services at lower prices than current alternatives.

The Future

Emerging technologies for broadband access using power line deployments and satellite services will more than likely complement existing technologies, rather than replace it for rural areas. Co-location operators are also going to become more popular in competing markets where there are spectrum and deployment challenges. Ultimately, these advances should eventually provide the level of service for both rural and urban customers.

By Angela Sutherland 

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