How small cell will enhance rural mobile coverage

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ABI Research says investment in small cell can boost rural wireless coverage.

Investment in rural telecom network is becoming significant for telecom operators because wireless penetration in rural India increased to just 51.19 in April 2016 from 50.88 in March 2016, and wireless penetration in urban India declined to 147.90 from 148.73, says TRAI.

But the ABI Research report indicates that many telecom network operators are not making enough investment in small cell for the purpose of enhancing their rural mobile coverage. Vodafone and other telecom operators are utilizing small cells for outdoor coverage in rural locations, where the backhaul is not difficult and usually wireline.

In fact, limited investment in small cell backhaul through 2020 is set to threaten many rural and remote communities across the world. ABI Research forecasts cumulative small cell backhaul links to rural and remote communities to top 220,000 through 2020, with equipment revenue reaching more than just $300 million.

The poor demand for small cells among telecoms is despite the fact that 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 comparison, the outdoor small cell backhaul predicted to touch $2.2 billion investment by 2020 showing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 80 percent.

Rural areas can be well served with small cell deployments, which are ideal for harsh and unreachable locations as it can enhance saturated macrocellular networks and add to spectrum capacity owing to dense low power node deployments. Small cells have been proven to enhance rural and remote radio access, cite reports.

Tests and trails of the small cells are underway and many telecom network operators like Verizon Wireless, Sprint etc have been researching and announcing deployments of small cells worldwide raising similar expectations from T-Mobile and AT&T, with carriers like Vodafone deploying the same for improving their coverage in India.

“For rural access, small cells offer adequate capacity at lower costs and smaller sizes,” says Ahmed Ali, senior analyst at ABI Research.

The small cell technology, which is costly and has latency setbacks, can be made practical with shared access or through a common host providing the service to operators saving the time, effort and money of the operator to deploy their own systems. The fiber network layout will be an added benefit to this deployment.

“Though 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,” said Ali.

ABI Research also points out that carriers can acquire new revenue opportunities with small cells through providing services related to location and presence information of the user. Small cells can also merge into Wi-Fi and provide capacity to reduce the off-load to that technology.

According to ABI Research, 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.

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

Since mobile penetration in rural India is just above 50 percent, investment in small cells will be one of the options for telecom network operators in the country.

Vina Krishnan
[email protected]

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