Small cells recast for reaching remote communities

RealWireless argues that 'meadowcells' can halve the cost per person of deploying rural mobile broadband

By Caroline Gabriel

This year's Cambridge Wireless Future of Wireless International Conference was heavily focused on the big picture socio-economic issues surrounding '5G' (see separate item), but to achieve progress to universal access and new services, it is important that deployable technologies evolve in the near term. For reaching unconnected communities, small cells - so often associated with hyperdense urban networks - will be important for making a viable business case, often for the first time.

Small cells make it commercially viable to bring broadband mobile coverage to ultra-rural communities, according to Simon Saunders, CTO at consultancy RealWireless (and former chair of the Small Cell Forum). They are not always the right solution - macrocells remain better for covering scattered populations, and it is important to reduce their cost and power too.

But for small villages, community small cells, which Saunder dubbed 'meadowcells', can reduce the daunting cost, for the operator, of covering large numbers of remote, small communities.

"Big cells would work well if people are spread uniformly, but if we use small cells in villages we can do some good things," Saunders said. "It's very much understanding what the shape of the need is and having a suite of solutions."

For meadowcells to become a mainstream option, there will be deployment challenges such as finding backhaul options (including satellite). Operators also need to prioritize rural coverage better, which will sometimes be government-driven, but would also be encouraged by a better business case.

And, of course, that means the cost of the cells needs to come down further - to 10% or less of macrocell cost, the benchmark for many carriers to green-light volume roll-outs, whether urban or rural. RealWireless calculations indicate that the cost of providing coverage to 500m people in remote areas can be made commercially viable by repurposing the metrocells designed for urban areas, and halve the cost per person at this scale, compared with macrocell approaches.

Further advances, particularly in backhaul and its spectrum, will improve the economics further. "Combined with a new generation of satellite technology and associated spectrum for backhaul, costs can be reduced to around one-tenth of the traditional cell cost. Our estimates suggest that such technology could then economically improve mobile service to one billion people worldwide," said Saunders.

The consultancy also announced its 'RealWireless - Wireless for Good' initiative to help support expansion of coverage in remote and rural areas in any part of the world. This will provide funding and pro bono consulting for projects in this area, and the first beneficiary was revealed to be Télécoms Sans Frontières.

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