Access to the internet is still an issue for many people across the globe — the most recent data collected by DataReportal revealed that just over 40% of the world’s total population don’t have it. In a world where digitalisation is gaining traction, internet connection is often perceived as an essential utility. So, what’s the deal with rural connectivity, and what should telcos be doing to bridge the geographical divide? Here, Hamish White, CEO of Mobilise, investigates.
Mobile internet access
provides deployment and coverage flexibility that cannot be matched using fixed
broadband, which is typically unaffordable or completely unavailable in rural
areas. Therefore, mobile connectivity is the only feasible pathway to internet
access. However, simply having a mobile phone is no good if the area has no
network coverage, and this is where the problem with rural connectivity lies —
how can telcos connect the unconnected?
the digital divide
A digital divide
refers to a scenario where there is unequal access to communication
technologies. It is a multifaceted issue, as those who are not connected can be
split into two groups: the uncovered and the covered but not connected.
population live in an area where there is no mobile network, so even if they
owned a device that could connect them to the internet, there is no
infrastructure in place to enable connectivity. The covered but not connected population
live in an area of network availability but cannot access the internet for a
variety of reasons such as affordability or technology literacy.
mobile access can be split into the affordability of data and the affordability
of devices. The United Nations Broadband Commission has set a global target to
make entry level data services less than two per cent of the monthly income per
capita by 2025. Device affordability is improving due to the increased
availability of lower cost smartphones and smart feature phones such as JioPhone
Next. These are steps in the right direction to empower the rural population to
reap mobile connectivity’s benefits.
Bridging the gap
Operators need to consider how technological
developments could help them to bridge the gap in the long-term while keeping
operations economically viable. Operators need to determine how to reduce the
cost of deploying and operating networks in remote areas.
The challenge lies in backhaul connectivity,
which refers to the portion of the network that links a base station to the core
network. Traditional backhaul connectivity is achieved through microwave
technology or physical full fibre cables, but in rural areas, where there may just
be a handful of people, the distance, terrain, and cost make these strategies
Instead, the solution could lie in a low Earth
orbit (LEO) satellite network. LEO satellites offer backhaul connectivity on a
global scale. Instead of connecting each individual small village with microwave
or fibre, a LEO satellite network allows blanket global coverage for backhaul
satellites consist of many thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth at lower
altitute, which allows them to offer bandwidth and latency far superior to MEO
Many satellite companies are investing in
this technology in a bid to bridge the digital divide. OneWeb, the UK.gov
backed satellite company, is currently building a global system aimed at
network operators that will be available by the end of 2022, while SpaceX’s Starlink
is sold directly to customers and is already operational across 22 countries
with plans to expand across the world over the coming years.
Selling directly to consumers is rare, but
could this model be the key? Deploying a solution that consists of radio
connectivity via WiFi and mobile combined with a satellite receiver for
backhaul via the LEO satellite network would offer operators a more efficient deployment
model for rural areas. And as LEO satellite networks scale, the economics of satellite
transport costs will also improve. In an increasingly supportive regulatory
environment, perhaps there’s a chance that regulators and governments could invest
to support this model as a viable, sustainable, long-term solution to bridge
the digital divide?
Let’s go digital
While eliminating the rural-urban
connectivity gap helps citizens to take advantage of digital services, it’s
also worth considering how digital tools can in turn support rural
connectivity. Onboarding remote customers is not a simple task — store
collection or postal delivery are not viable. However, going digital and with
an eSIM solution enables telcos to establish a remote sales process to
instantly onboard their customers directly from their device without any
eSIM-capable devices are growing in
popularity, although they are typically premium smartphones that are
unaffordable for low-income populations. However, the affordability of eSIM
devices looks like it’s starting to change. Although still within the premium
price range, Apple’s iPhone SE and Google’s Pixel 3a are lowering the entry
point for eSIM adoption. If this trend continues and some eSIM capability is
included in affordable devices, like the JioPhone Next, the entire onboarding
process for rural customers could be done digitally.
eSIMs eliminate the need for a physical SIM card. Instead, device authentication can be enabled by downloading network authentication credentials that can be permanently embedded into a device. Mobilise’s M-Connect white-labelled platform includes its latest offering — eSIM as a Service — which allows telcos to offer eSIMs to customers. In conjunction with network expansion, M-Connect would allow telcos to onboard customers in any remote location without the logistics of delivering any physical components.
In a world
increasingly dependent on technology, bridging the geographical digital divide
has become an urgent issue that needs to be resolved. We are all responsible — network operators, regulators and software
providers — for growing mobile penetration
rates and to ensure the benefits of the internet are available to all,
regardless of their location.