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Wi-Fi ‘essential’ to bridge the digital divide in rural areas

Report from trade association for wireless communications sets out strategies for mobile operators, fibre providers and cable companies to serve the estimated billion people unconnected to Wi-Fi

While many talk of connectivity being pervasive these days, those in small towns, remote communities and other sparsely populated areas around the globe know of the struggles of getting services worthy of the name. To address these issues, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has published a report stating that Wi-Fi will be the most economical and effective technology for bridging the digital divide in utilising the best available backhaul solution.

Rural Wi-Fi connectivity: challenges, use cases and case studies noted that more than a billion people worldwide currently live in rural communities where internet access is poor or completely unavailable. This severely limits their access to key digital services such as telehealth and online education, as well as job opportunities that involve telecommuting.

This digital divide persists in both developed and developing countries and threatens to become “the new face of inequality”, according to UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed. WBA noted that the Biden-Harris administration announced $502m for high-speed internet in rural communities to help address the issue in the US.

The study also observed that two-thirds of the world’s school-age children – or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 years old – do not have internet connection in their homes, according to a joint report from UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which calculates 2.9 billion of the global population is still offline, with an estimated 96% of them in developing countries.

Even among the 4.9 billion counted as “internet users”, many hundreds of millions may get the chance to go online only infrequently, via shared devices, or using connectivity speeds that markedly limit the usefulness of their connection. In addition, for some of the world’s poorest nations, getting online can cost a staggering 20% or more of per capita Gross National Income (GNI).

The WBA report, led by WBA members C-DOT, HFCL and Meta, includes strategies and best practices that “service providers can use to ensure the right quality of service”, making Wi-Fi ideal for distance learning, telehealth, e-commerce, the internet of things (IoT), streaming video and other consumer, business and government applications. Through use cases and real-world case studies, the report explores a wide variety of deployment scenarios that address the particular challenges of rural environments, with different types of backhaul, targeted applications, market conditions and other factors.

The report also provides regulators with guidance for maximising Wi-Fi’s ability to bridge the digital divide in rural areas. A prime example is ensuring that the new 6 GHz band is available for use, giving service providers additional spectrum to support more users and deliver the requisite speeds and performance. 

Among the potential use cases that WBA said gives operators a versatile and cost-effective technology for expanding their services into rural areas, it pointed to fibre providers using Wi-Fi to extend their services into rural areas over microwave. This avoids the expense and lead time of burying or stringing fibre in remote areas, including ones with challenging terrain such as rivers, mountains and rock.

“With Wi-Fi 6, the bandwidth over the unlicensed band microwave link will increase and may reach 1 Gbps,” the report said. “One telecom operator in India is already deploying a network called Bharat Air Fiber in rural areas based on similar architecture.”

In another example, the report suggested that cellular operators are able to use Wi-Fi to provide fixed and mobile broadband services. It noted that the average cost of deploying a cellular tower covering a population of around 4,000 spread across 1km2 costs at least 20x more in capital and operational expenses compared to a mere $2,500 for Wi-Fi deployment. This includes outdoor Wi-Fi equipment, external antennas, solar panel, solar charge controller, battery, outdoor PoE, poles and earthing, cabling, and two years of fibre backhaul subscription cost.

“Wi-Fi is uniquely positioned to extend voice, video and broadband services to the nearly one billion people worldwide in rural areas who have poor or no connectivity,” said Wireless Broadband Alliance CEO Tiago Rodrigues.

“Unlike cellular, Wi-Fi is already included in virtually all smartphones, tablets, laptops, streaming boxes and other devices. This ubiquity also means Wi-Fi has the kind of high-volume, low-cost structure that’s critical for ensuring devices and services can be priced low enough to maximise adoption. As our report shows, these are some of the reasons why Wi-Fi is economically and technologically ideal to address the digital divide in rural areas.”

Rajkumar Upadhyay, executive director at C-DOT India, co-author of the report, commented: “Demand for data is exponentially increasing globally. This is well-supported by an affordable device ecosystem, availability of a variety of quality content, over-the-top [OTT] services, e-education, e-health and other new use cases. Covid-19 has fuelled this demand further and uptake is increasing in rural areas.

“Wi-Fi, an unlicensed band technology, is key both from access and backhaul perspective. In India, Wi-Fi is being used not only as access but to extend connectivity, for example, from Gram Panchayat [GP] to neighbouring villages. The use of Wi-Fi technology to establish point-to-point and multi-point links in an unlicensed band is one of the alternate and affordable technologies to extend connectivity from fibre points of presence to nearby villages.”

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