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Connecting Rural Communities – Can 5G and Open RAN help bridge the broadband divide?

11 January, 2021

According to the FCC, 35 to 40 % of Americans in rural areas and Tribal lands do not have access to broadband [i]. Governments and regulatory agencies are now making concerted efforts to address the persistent issue of insufficient broadband access in rural communities and 5G may provide the solution.

On Dec 7th, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced $9.2B in awards to promote buildout of rural broadband networks over the next decade.  The awards are meant to provide wireless broadband services to rural communities that lack connectivity greater than 25Mbps.  Similarly, the UK government is funding an Open RAN-based initiative to create an economically viable solution to improve rural connectivity.  

5G can play a critical role in closing this broadband access divide in ways previous mobile generations could not because it fulfils both mobile and fixed broadband needs. To do so, however, the long-term economics must also make sense, which is where Open RAN’s vibrant supplier ecosystem and ability to advance 5G infrastructure sharing can be relevant for equality of access to the 5G economy.   

Role of 5G in Rural networks

5G offers several promising features for supporting rural connectivity:

Ultra-Fast Mobile Broadband:
This 5G feature provides channel bandwidth of up to 1 Gbps, enabling operators to provide fixed wireless access (FWA) to consumers enabling them to benefit in all areas including online commerce, entertainment and education.

Network Slicing:
Slicing contributes to resource optimization from Radio to Core, allowing greater flexibility and granular control of the service tailored to specific requirements of user segments such as local government, residential or enterprise use etc., in turn improving the end-user experience and helping to close the divide.

Extended Reach:
Coaxial and fibre broadband build outs have been expensive, stretching business cases to recoup the investment.  5G addresses these problems not only by providing broadband access, but also by extending the network’s reach without laying expensive fibre infrastructure. This evolution also helps to overcome the last mile access issues that have plagued the telecom industry for decades and opens up improved service options for the consumer.

Private networks: 
Many regulators are setting aside portions of mid-band spectrum to support enterprise customers, local governments and private networks.  This is also providing carriers and enterprises the opportunity to provide connectivity in locations which previously were not viable.

Open RAN: the game-changer

Open RAN is also helping to make 5G more economically viable given its advantages of open interfaces and component-level interoperability.  The functional splits enabled by Open RAN architecture offers possibilities to further optimize network design.  For example, the ability to aggregate certain RAN functions in Centralized Units (CU’s) helps reduce network cost and complexity.  Additionally, increased competition driven by open RAN interfaces unleashes innovation and invites new RU vendors to the market, offering operators the ability to deploy best-of-breed solutions.  The industry is already seeing several RU reference architectures being developed to bring new RU products to market.

Open RAN has also enabled neutral host architectures. In this shared infrastructure setting, a neutral host provides towers and other physical infrastructure and allows different providers access and co-location facilities to connect and offer services. Sharing infrastructure in this way reduces the cost and ideally provides a platform for more players and innovators than would a typical, closed mobile network. Cloud-native 5G RAN enable multi-operator RAN (MORAN) and multi-operator Core network (MOCN) architectures, creating new economically viable alternatives to support rural buildouts.

ORAN-based Neutral-host infrastructure – Step-change in network economics

Shared infrastructure is highly advantageous in the 5G world. In a shared infrastructure network built on Open RAN, network components, applications, physical infrastructure and even spectrum are decoupled. Open RAN radio units support multiple bands and open interfaces to any other vendors’ DUs and CUs. The open environment allows new vendors and innovators to participate and compete with a greater ability to focus on solutions for specific geographies and use cases. 

Some countries are encouraging greater private sector participation to explore these possibilities. O-RAN’s open ecosystem, coupled with shared infrastructure initiatives like the UK’s NeutrORAN project, brings added advantages to make the use cases in low density and remote locations more viable. The NeutrORAN approach, supported by NEC’s 5G Center of Excellence (CoE), aims to not only reduce cost and maximize the value derived from 5G infrastructure, but also open a 5G B2B2x environment for additional ecosystem participants to leverage this open, shared infrastructure.  

For example, CSPs can enable enterprises to build out private 5G extensions of their global corporate network. State and local governments or enterprises may evaluate opportunities to monetize existing public infrastructure, e.g., to support V2X initiatives. Other innovators will be able to identify and address opportunities in markets where CSPs otherwise might not risk or invest in engaging specific communities in new ways, e.g., public safety. With a more open 5G community comes more opportunity for more viable players to address market needs that may have been underserved, unidentified or simply not prioritized in the past.

Closing the broadband gap

Closing the gap in broadband access is a critical economic issue that public-private technology and policy initiatives increasingly aim to address. NEC will continue to be an early adopter of open-network initiatives, just as it did with SDN/NFV more than a decade ago and now with Open RAN.  Jointly working with its global carrier customers and supporting public-private initiatives, we remain optimistic that the next 5 years will see accelerated progress in addressing this important issue.

[1] Source FCC: https://www.fcc.gov/about-fcc/fcc-initiatives/bridging-digital-divide-all-americans

This post was first published on nec.com and was written by Rahul Chandra, VP of Global 5G Business Dev, NEC Corporation of America

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