Network operators will spend more than $20 billion this year on rural cell sites on a global basis, up 1.2% from 2018, according to a recent report from ABI Research.

“Mobile operators are responding to local community and state regulatory pressure to ensure mobile cellular coverage is not just ‘voice-capable’ but also ‘mobile broadband-capable’,” ABI said.

The analyst firm credited not just investments in traditional macro cells, but the “reboot of the typical cell site deployment approach” via small cells to serve rural markets, and other new, lower-cost equipment strategies from vendors.

“Novel engineering and manufacturing processes have not just made rural cell-site solutions cheaper but also more versatile,” said Ling Kangrui, ABI research analyst, calling out Huawei’s RuralStar Lite and Nokia’s Kuha cell site specifically. Huawei, Kangrui noted, claims a return-on-investment time within three to five years on its RuralStar Lite offerin. ABI also name-checked Parallel Wireless vRAN, Fairwaves base station solutions and Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project, saying that such efforts “have radically altered the typical cell-site total cost of ownership model for the operator.” Parallel Wireless this year made a strategic partnership with the Competitive Carriers Association to provide low-cost, end-to-end network solutions for rural operators (see interview below). It counts among its recent customer wins Inland Cellular, a regional operator in the Pacific Northwest.

In addition, options such as tethered and untethered balloon-based sites, such as Alphabet’s Loon (used to provide cellular service in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria) and Altaeros’ SuperTower have the potential to disrupt the macro cell-site business model, Kangrui added.

“Several mobile network operators are taking proactive steps to prioritize the coverage needs of their rural end-users,” said Jake Saunders, VP at ABI Research. “Telefonica has enabled mobile connectivity in remote Latin America by using the Parallel Wireless vRAN solution, which features multi-mode and carrier capabilities. Vodafone Egypt and Vipnet Croatia are some of the operators who have adopted Ericsson Psi Coverage, a low-cost RAN solution designed to utilize a single radio unit for rural deployment. There are also novel initiatives to combine solar-powered small cells with off-grid lithium batteries to provide communications and power to local communities.”

Closing the digital divide has been a major focus of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission as well as other federal agencies, with funding this year coming from a number of avenues to expand rural broadband access. AT&T, for example, is in the midst of a multi-year FCC project to bring high-speed broadband to more than 1.1 million hard-to-reach locations by the end of 2020, which it is accomplishing in part via fixed wireless access; the carrier has said that it plans to use the Citizens Broadband Radio Service as part of its solution to deliver home and enterprise broadband services in suburban and rural locations. In May, the FCC announced the first wave of $111.6 million in funded projects from the Connect America II fund, which will provide $1.488 billion in support to for broadband expansion to around 700,000 unserved rural homes and small businesses over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, USDA last year launched a new program to provide $600 million in grants and loans for rural broadband expansion as well.

Watch an interview below with Parallel Wireless VP of Sales Steve Libbey, in which he discusses the company’s strategic partnership with CCA.


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