Delivering 5G in remote and rural regions

08 August 2023

The delivery of 5G – or other high-speed connectivity – to remote and rural regions remains a challenge across the continent, and one with no single answer, outlines Amy Saunders

The huge deficit of broadband availability across the African continent is well-known - the ITU estimates that 299 million people, approximately 23% of the continent, have no access to mobile broadband - rendering efforts to make it more accessible and affordable critical to improving the economic outlook across all nations.

While current market factors like population, urbanisation, and GDP per capita suggest that Africa may not yet be ready for widespread 5G adoption, it is important for the continent to start preparing its infrastructure for the future.

“The benefits of having 5G available in Africa are numerous, from bridging the digital divide to spurring innovation and economic growth,” explains Hagai Offeck, senior director of presales engineering, Parallel Wireless. “By investing in 5G now, African countries can position themselves for success in the years to come.”

5G is not just the next generation in a line of mobile generations, but an entire ecosystem of technologies, products, solutions, and processes to facilitate the daily life of communities, says John Tenidis, marketing director of Intracom Telecom’s wireless solutions portfolio.

“5G has an impact equal and comparable to that of the industrial revolution,” asserts Tenidis. “5G is a tool for the African population to improve quality and increase prosperity for its current and the future generations. It can be used in the economic, political, social, industrial, academic, professional life of the communities and its integration requires skills that must be developed locally for local needs.”

Paul Colmer, EXCO member at Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA), agrees, stating that “5G is a great technology that can deliver impressive speeds, but in many African countries it’s more of a quantum leap, where instead people are looking for reasonable speeds that are more affordable, especially in rural and semi-rural parts of the continent.”

Indeed, the advent of 5G has served to highlight that internet connectivity is essential for the human population, much like water and power.
“Establishing equality to the right of communication is fundamental for the prosperity of communities,” asserts Tenidis. “Things like smart education, smart agriculture, smart business, smart entertainment, and AI have their foundation on the 5G network. 5G is the tool to bring prosperity to the entire population. The rural and non-densely populated areas have always been the Achilles’ heel of progress.”

Rural challenges

Delivering 5G technology to remote and rural African locations poses significant challenges, however, with innovative strategies and partnerships, it is possible to overcome these and bring the benefits of 5G technology to even the most remote corners of the continent.

Some of the greatest challenges include lack of infrastructure like fibre and cell towers, which are costly and time-consuming to build; limited electricity supply, which makes operations and maintenance tricky; affordability for end users; lack of skilled personnel for deployment; and handset availability and pricing - 4G handsets have low penetration and are unaffordable for many, and 5G will be even more problematic.

To meet these challenges, Offeck suggests that “providers can use existing infrastructure, such as satellite communication systems, to extend the reach of 5G networks to remote and rural areas.” Off-grid solutions like renewable energy hold a potential solution to power challenges, although are themselves challenging to maintain and deploy in remote regions.

“Governments and international communities can partner with private companies to provide funding and support for the deployment of 5G infrastructure in remote areas,” suggests Offeck, while “involving local communities in the deployment and maintenance of 5G infrastructure can help to build trust and ensure that the technology is being used effectively and sustainably.”

Meanwhile, partnership with handset manufacturers to provide low-cost affordable devices is another option to help make 5G more affordable and accessible for end users.

Spectrum availability is another challenge when it comes to rolling out 5G. In South Africa, Colmer reports, the spectrum used for rural/semi-rural 5G is 700MHz and 800MHz, which is important for transmitting 5G signals further, but won’t have the throughput or speeds of 5G in more urban areas using higher frequency bands.

“Practically, network operators must dismantle their 2G and 3G networks and reform their spectrum usage for 5G connectivity,” outlines Nick Ehrke, Africa lead, Tarana Wireless Inc. “In Africa, the dependency on 2G and 3G makes this switchover difficult in the foreseeable future. The millions of new 2G devices sold in Africa every year - coupled with the high cost of 5G devices, spectrum, and the network infrastructure that is required - are major roadblocks to 5G.”

Making the numbers work

Naturally, monetisation of 5G in remote and rural regions is one of the biggest challenges of all.

“You’re deploying infrastructure and technology into vast areas where there’s not a lot of people with not a lot of money, and that’s the challenge for network operators to get ROI on their investment,” says Colmer. “It’s very different to investing in small, densely populated areas with high-income earners.”
So how then can delivering 5G to remote and rural regions be made ‘worth it’ for service providers?

Tenidis believes that, at first, 5G monetisation may be comparable with the challenges experienced during the rollout of 4G. The effective monetisation of 5G services and capabilities can be challenging and costly, “however, emerging business models, although they cannot be accurately predicted today, will lay the first stone for new synergies and cross-product offerings bringing enhanced commercial transactions. 5G will eventually enable numerous direct or indirect business relationships (e.g. B2B2X) among CSPs, third parties and the end customers. The most common of such models, also applicable today, refers to third party digital content offered to consumers by the CSPs.”

Colmer and Offeck state that governments must find ways to subsidise 5G deployments in less populated areas by incentivising service providers to build national networks that can balance out the shortfalls from rural areas. However, with 54 different countries and governmental systems in place across the continent, the feasibility of this is limited to a country-by-country basis.

Offeck suggests that “service providers can target specific niche markets in rural areas, such as agriculture or mining, that may have unique requirements for connectivity and are willing to pay a premium for high-quality 5G services.”

Service providers, meanwhile, can share infrastructure with others to reduce the cost of deployment and increase the coverage area, which can also reduce the risk of over-investing in infrastructure in areas with low population densities.

Pay-as-you-go models offer another route allowing customers to pay for the 5G services they need on a per-use basis. “This can make 5G services more affordable for customers in rural areas,” asserts Offeck. Service providers can also bundle 5G services with other products, such as smart farming or smart home solutions, to increase the value proposition.

Colmer, however, delivers a word of warning: “in the last spectrum sale in South Africa, there was one lot of 2 x 10MHz in the 800MHz band that were left unsold. Why? Because there was a clause to the sale: an obligation of an outside-in approach to coverage, meaning it would have to be used in rural areas first before the owner was allowed to use it in metro areas. This shows how difficult it is to monetise services in these areas. 5G is currently not being rolled out in rural areas in South Africa for the same reason and will continue to prove problematic as the technology expands into Africa.”

5G or not 5G, that is the question

“5G is important, but what’s more important is affordable connectivity across the African continent,” asserts Colmer.

Indeed, “it would be interesting to see how many people in Africa woke up this morning and said ‘this is a great day to get 5G,’ or ‘I cannot wait, I am getting my shiny new 5G today,’” says Ehrke. “5G is not what Africa wants, what Africa wants is reliable and cost-effective broadband internet whether that is delivered via fixed wireless, 5G, or fibre.”

“For years the hype around 5G was that it was the answer to everyone’s broadband needs. Regulators have enjoyed how 5G at auctions for high demand spectrum has brought billions of dollars into state coffers. Vendors have enjoyed the technology cycle, driving equipment sales. Operators have enjoyed the marketing excitement. But the reality remains that for most people, 5G is just a slightly faster 4G and has not made any fundamental change,” asserts Ehrke.

Indeed, Colmer and Ehrke believe that there are technologies better suited to delivering high-speed internet services to remote and rural African regions, like unlicenced spectrum (5.8GHz).

“There are many established Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) already servicing rural areas with 5G-like speeds using fixed wireless equipment at more affordable rates,” says Colmer. “In many cases, using 5.8GHz fixed wireless in rural areas makes more sense than 5G deployment, especially from an ROI perspective.”

“In addition, in South Africa, MTN is using fixed unlicensed wireless technology (Air Fibre) in parallel with their 5G handset services, because it’s quicker, easier and less expensive to deploy,” explains Colmer.

Air Fibre from Tarana Wireless was deployed by MTN as the world’s first next generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) solution, utilising multiple towers across Southern Africa to deliver high speed (more than 100Mbps) connectivity to more than 3.4 million homes, and at a fraction of the cost of fibre or 5G.

“The emergence of ngFWA stands out as the quickest and best route to provide broadband connectivity in rural markets. ngFWA is cost effective, easy to deploy, and carrier grade, meeting operators’ requirements for long product life cycles, low cost of entry, high reliability and the capacities required for broadband services,” says Ehrke. Operators across the continent have invested in bringing fibre to their towers and upgrading the capacity of their networks. “Leveraging their tower assets to extend their fibre through ngFWA reduces the time to deploy and monetises their infrastructure quicker than any other technology medium.”

“The imperative for Africa is to look clearly past 5G hype and understand that a toolkit of multiple technologies is required to make fast, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity widely available. Multiple solutions are required to bridge the digital divide in Africa,” concludes Ehrke.