How a pilot in UK can pave way for rural launch of 5G in India

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, President & CTO, Parallel Wireless India is one of the fastest growing telecom markets in the world. It has 1.2 billion mobile subscribers, which is 91 percent of its total population. Almost 40 percent of 1.2 billion mobile subscribers use smartphones, which is enormous for a low-income country like India.However, hidden behind these impressive figures is a sobering fact. While urban teledensity in the country is 160 percent, as many as 40 percent of the country is still without any mobile or telephone connection.

There is undoubtedly a need to address the issue of under-penetration in rural areas even as the country continues to record one of the lowest data tariff and low ARPU of around Rs88, a tad over $1 a month. This would be even lower in rural areas.

Lower ARPU prevents telecom operators from investing in expanding their rural network, whether in new or older generation technology. Telcos are not ready to invest in the older generation of technology in rural areas knowing that these technologies would soon be obsolete, and when it comes to new generation technologies like 4G and 5G, the urban areas usually get priority given the customers in these areas have better-paying capability. In a way, when it comes in network expansion in rural areas, telcos are in a quandary.

There is this feeling that 5G is a futuristic technology not meant for rural areas as those regions should first get the basic telecom services rather than high-speed connectivity. With this perception and return from investment for telcos spread over a long period, they are reluctant to invest in newer technologies, like 5G, in rural and remote areas.

5G for the rural populace

Notwithstanding the common belief that 5G is not for unconnected rural regions, there is a section of people who believe otherwise. These people believe
5G being the cutting-edge technology with features like ultra-high internet speed, low latency, and better coverage can help solve many of the common problems faced by the people in the rural region.

Even as 5G promises to open doors for new technologies like virtual and augmented reality, autonomous cars, and remote surgery, which sounds more like urban solutions, it can change for better the way governments deliver essential services like education, health, and security to the remotest areas. In fact, the availability of high-speed mobile networks opens up new avenues of economic and social growth for rural areas.

The UK government’s initiative, 5G RuralFirst explores new network deployment strategies which promise to empower the service providers to cost effectively deploy the latest technologies in rural areas while at the same time providing new business models for people in the rural community.

5G: Rural first

5G RuralFirst project, which seeks to demonstrate that advancements in technology can be leveraged to cost-effectively provide high-speed connectivity in low-ARPU regions, is currently being undertaken in three locations – North Scotland in the Orkney Islands, and Harper Adams and Somerset in rural England.

The project utilizes Parallel Wireless’ – one of the collaborators in the RuralFirst project – All G approach to show that telecom operators can deploy all generation networks (2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G) on the same telecom network infrastructure helping the telcos to be future ready without having to spend a fortune in shifting from older generation to newer generation technology.

At the heart of the initiative is the use of virtualization technology – a software-enabled network – that allows service providers to not only expand existing networks cost-effectively but also deploy a new generation of technology on existing infrastructure.

When it comes to expanding the network or deploying a new generation technology in rural areas, cost becomes a big hindrance. By using the cost-effective virtualization and All G technology, the 5GRuralFirst project is trying to show that with a new approach it is easier to deploy, maintain and manage the networks in rural areas.

It is also exploring how 5G technology can create new business models to develop new networks and demonstrate end-to-end use case, utilizing super-fast enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-low latency communications and supports the massive Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.

The findings of the project promise to pave the way for more such tests and trials in other parts of the world, possibly in India too, and help to bust the myth that latest technologies like 5G cannot be deployed cost-effectively in rural areas. The availability of high-speed mobile broadband is essential for the social and economic growth of the rural areas and the service providers should explore new technology approaches to ensure the same