Bringing broadband to woefully underserved rural communities has long been a promise unfulfilled. For years now, 5G has served as the light at the end of this long tunnel. Far from a guaranteed strategy, considerable weight has been put behind this approach from all corners of the ecosystem. Operators are making substantial promises to provide coverage to vast majorities of the population. Tech vendors are celebrating critical performance advancements that increase the efficiency of 5G deployments. Governments are incentivizing operators to invest in these communities, pushing so called “outside-in” strategies that frontload rollouts to areas that have traditionally been last to be upgraded, if ever.
And yet, success on this front is far from guaranteed. Misinformation about 5G has made many rural communities resistant to the technology, despite the myriad benefits it brings. And even with federal investments pouring in, the business case for serving these areas is still very much up in the air.
The fallout from COVID-19 has shown us that as a global community, we can’t afford not to get this right. In an age of looming lockdowns, the disruption caused by digital divides is more evident than ever. At the same time, the considerable promise of true highspeed connectivity is too great not to relentlessly pursue given its potential to:
Attract industry, including businesses that could benefit from untapped rural talent pools and considerable cost savings that accompany relocating or expanding away from megacities.
Revolutionize agriculture with advanced connectivity that automates complex processes, protects crops and helps farmers make more informed decisions.
Boost educational outcomes in areas where underprivileged students struggle to keep up with their connected peers.
Expand healthcare quality with critical connectivity to rural care facilities that traditionally have not kept pace with technological advances.
Serve reliable home broadband to rural residents paying high fees for subpar connectivity from legacy providers.
Misinformation about 5G has made many rural communities resistant to the technology, despite the myriad benefits it brings.
Promising progress a positive sign, but hurdles remain
While a solid business case represents one of the biggest hurdles to widespread 5G rural deployments, there are positive developments underway. Advancements in automation and remote monitoring can help reduce support costs. Breakthrough work recently demonstrated by Ericsson and Qualcomm showed new promise for fixed wireless access technology pushing 5G’s highest-speed mmWave technology range to more than three miles.
On the flipside, while components of a successful business model are coming together, key elements are still missing. Chief among them is the sheer amount of coverage needed to truly serve all rural residents. In reality, operators will be counting on enterprise customers to offset investments. That, of course, produces a “chicken or the egg” dynamic that could effectively act as a stalemate.
Earlier, I alluded to 5G fear stoked by rumors and misinformation campaigns that will place the burden on local governments to educate residents and gain their buy-in. How many politicians will be ready to put it all on the line to advance deployment of a technology their community isn’t convinced it needs?
Even overcoming a negative rumor mill doesn’t result in a green light for development. One of the most attractive benefits of rural living are the beautiful, serene landscapes that serve as the backdrop. Residents will need to weight the upside of connectivity with the unsightly scaffolding that supports it.
These are all solvable challenges, but regardless, they represent bumps in the road. There are potential solutions on the horizon, however:
Many military bases are based out of rural locations. In these areas, 5G investments by bases could ease deployment costs for connecting surrounding areas.
Low earth orbit (LEO) satellites will eventually be capable of beaming 5G signals from space for seamless wireless connectivity in hard-to-reach areas.
Don’t count out LTE technology which remains capable of serving residential needs in the short-term. As costs continue to drop. This proven technology could bridge the divide while 5G issues are sorted.
Endless potential in the air
While there is still plenty of road to travel on the path to rural 5G, never have we been closer to realizing such an important aspiration. Ultimately, success will hinge on using every tool at our collective disposal to bring this long-held dream to life. We look forward to continued collaboration with our customers and partners to make this a reality.