The telecom operators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries face dual challenges of low telecom penetration and lower Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) in the rural areas.
According to GSMA Mobile Economy report 2018, the subscriber base in the MENA region is still at just 62 percent while only 36 percent of the population uses the internet. Further, mobile monthly ARPU in the region remains stagnant at around $7, one-third of the average ARPU in the OECD countries.
Typically, low ARPU in the rural areas dissuades telcos from expanding the network in the rural and remote areas. Further, the region’s overdependence on older generation technologies (over 90 percent of users are still on 2G and 3G networks) means that the service providers are inherently reluctant to expand in yet-to-be connected areas. They are not ready to invest in the older generation of technology knowing that it will be obsolete soon.
On the other hand, since the return on investment is spread over a more extended period, so the telcos are unable to justify investment in newer technologies, like 5G, for providing connectivity in rural or remote areas. Many also believe that rural areas do not require high-speed connectivity.
At first glance, 5G seems to be an urban and futuristic technology. 5G is the latest generation of communication technology that promises ultra-high internet speed, low latency with better coverage. Virtual reality, augmented reality, autonomous cars, and remote surgery is just some of the use cases of this new technology.
However, the technology promises many innovative use cases for rural regions as well. For poverty-stricken regions like North Africa, 5G can revolutionize the way governments in the region deliver essential services like education, health, and security to the remotest areas. The technology also enables service providers to offer many innovative use cases like remote surgery, which is especially beneficial for rural areas. The availability of high-speed and cost-effective mobile broadband promises to open up new avenues of economic and social growth for the rural areas.
An innovative technology approach can enable the rural community to benefit from high-speed mobile broadband. The British Government’s ongoing 5G RuralFirst project is a case in point. The initiative explores new network deployment strategies for rural areas and promises to provide new business models for the rural community.
5G RuralFirst shows the way
Currently being tested in three locations – North Scotland in the Orkney Islands, and Harper Adams and Somerset in rural England – the 5G RuralFirst project seeks to demonstrate that advancements in technology can be leveraged to cost-effectively provide high-speed connectivity in low-ARPU regions.
The project uses a novel approach for network deployment. Instead of using the traditional method of adding a new layer for new technology, 5G RuralFirst uses Parallel Wireless’ All G approach to show that telecom operators can deploy all generation networks (2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G) on the same telecom infrastructure efficiently and cost-effectively. This software-enabled approach allows the service provider to move to a new generation of technology by just easily upgrading the software. This way it becomes easier to deploy, maintain and manage the networks. It also adds much-needed simplicity, agility and flexibility to the networks.
The 5G RuralFirst initiative provides a new and more effective model for efficiently deploying rural networks. It is exploring how new 5G technologies can allow new business models to create new networks and demonstrate end-to-end use case, utilizing super-fast enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-low latency communications and support the massive Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.
The project also demonstrates how software-based architecture can help in reducing maintenance cost and enabling new business cases. A software-based network can provide the best networks with operational simplicity and business agility needed to excel in the new digital economy regardless of where someone lives, be it rural or urban or even a busy urban environment.
The success and findings of this project can pave the way for more such trials, possibly, in the MENA region too. It is a significant attempt at busting the myth that areas, where telecom operators have not expanded their coverage, need to start with the primary 2G network before they can think of 3G or 4G, let alone 5G. With the 5G RuralFirst approach, the service providers can think of providing the best-possible connectivity in the rural areas, which will allow the remote areas to use connectivity for overall social and economic growth.