Major metropolitan areas across the country are turning to cutting-edge technologies and solutions for advanced connectivity to satisfy the demands of increased data traffic and bandwidth-intensive content. Small cells have afforded these Tier I markets the ability to increase network capacity and available frequencies throughout a given area. With 5G technology waiting in the wings, companies and end-users located in these cities find themselves in an optimal position to enjoy continuous, high-quality connectivity services. However, take a step outside of these major metro areas and you’ll see an entirely different picture.
Some 19 million Americans, most of whom reside in rural communities, still don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet service. We see two possible solutions for this problem. First, network service providers can deploy fiber in strategic positions closer to rural areas, delivering the necessary backhaul connectivity for 5G technology enablement and small cell deployment throughout agricultural communities. The second solution is to deploy fixed wireless combined with 5G. Either solution will pave the way and enable rural areas to get the data speeds they need, even where communities are small and dispersed.
The Rural Small Cell Future
The initial demand for small cells and 5G technology began in the most densely populated regions of the United States. Meanwhile, rural areas, namely Tier II, III and IV markets, are finding themselves in greater need of connectivity solutions designed to serve a growing number of connected devices and bandwidth-intensive content and applications. For wireless carriers to extend their services to underserved markets with small cell deployment or 5G connectivity, network infrastructure and service providers must be willing and able to support these advanced technologies. Some wireless carriers in rural areas depend on regional transport providers to connect their networks with rural cell site locations.
Approach 1: Fixed Wireless
As an alternative to fixed cables, fixed wireless technology provides internet access to businesses and homes via wireless mobile networks, making it significantly more cost-effective at about 10 to 20 percent less than a typical wired service. However, this alone cannot meet the necessary download speeds or latency levels for today’s bandwidth-intensive data transmission. By combining 5G with fixed wireless, it is now possible to cut the cost of deployment even while delivering high-speed internet access.
Trials by Large Carriers
Big carriers are already beginning to recognize the value of small cell, 5G and fixed wireless, as multiple major telecommunications providers embark on new trials this year. In addition, according to an SNS Telecom report, 5G-based fixed wireless access represents a $1 billion opportunity by the end of 2019. The report, “5G for FWA (Fixed Wireless Access): 2017–2030 — Opportunities, Challenges, Strategies & Forecasts,” also details that fixed wireless 5G deployments are more cost-effective than a fiber-to-the-premises approach, reducing the upfront costs of last-mile connectivity by as much as 40 percent and decreasing time-to-market by eliminating the need to lay new cables.
Approach 2: Virtual FttF
Another interesting take on 5G solutions is virtual fiber-to-the-farm (FttF). Because the need for advanced connectivity is no longer limited to Tier I markets, growing numbers of rural agricultural communities are demanding high-capacity, low-latency network services to support bandwidth-intensive applications used in various operations, including water supply management, precision agriculture and food production. Given their growing reliance on internet access to remain competitive within the agricultural industry, modern farmers require advanced connectivity services that require additional network or wireless deployment throughout rural areas. Unfortunately, because of the wide geographic distribution of these areas, building fiber directly to the farm is both impractical and uneconomical. That’s where virtual FttF comes in.
Virtual FttF is a process in which network service providers deploy fiber in strategic positions closer to rural areas, delivering the necessary backhaul connectivity for wireless technology enablement and small cell deployment throughout agricultural communities. By virtualizing the connectivity process, providers are able to bring greater bandwidth and capacity to farmers throughout rural America in a cost-effective and simplified way, while mitigating the financial strain of extensive backhaul networks deployed across a wide geographic area.
Getting Carriers on Board
During the period of the so-called wireless land grab from 2010 to 2015, carriers across the nation scrambled to set up towers in rural areas to serve a wider audience outside of Tier I markets with wireless connectivity. However, although these areas remain highly connected from a macro cell standpoint, it is only recently that most carriers have considered expanding their services in these regions with additional bandwidth via small cell deployment. This creates a number of new challenges.
In order for this shift to be technologically and financially viable, carriers must find solutions for the installation of micro, or small cell equipment, on new cell site infrastructure, typically close to the existing macro cell site infrastructure, and then build fiber networks between each micro cell site and its macro cell site. These fronthaul and backhaul fiber networks must be both cost-effective and easily accessible. To remain cost-effective, regional fiber-optic carrier network use is essential for the cell site transport.
There is a wealth of opportunity to be found in the expansion of wireless technology, particularly throughout rural markets. Wireless carriers interested in extending their services to facilitate these new deployments will need to collaborate with network infrastructure and service providers that can support advanced technologies, such as virtual FttF and 5G over fixed wireless. As the wireless industry continues to work toward the goal of providing ubiquitous access to high-speed internet service, it will be interesting to witness the effect these technologies have on America’s rural communities.
Michael Morey is president and CEO of Bluebird Network.