Putting the spotlight on 5G in rural areas
The global pandemic has led to a renewed focus on closing the digital divide, which is primarily driven by changes in three areas. These changes in demand have created an opportunity to transform rural communities, and the decisions made in the next three years will have a major impact on their future.
Demand for 5G and broadband in rural areas before the pandemic
5G rural broadband and the elimination of the digital divide is not a new phenomenon. Bridging the digital divide is needed not only to allow internet access at broadband speeds for rural consumers, but also to aid the creation of a clever countryside – the rural sibling to smart cities. Up until recently, we described rural broadband as centered around a few cornerstones:
- Satisfying consumers' internet access needs - in lockstep with the technology evolution into fiber and 5G.
- Serving local businesses - in areas such as manufacturing, outdoor recreation, green energy production, and farming.
- Enabling anchor institutions to work well - education, healthcare, and first responders.
- Competing service offerings - provided by national or local fixed and mobile broadband service providers.
- Providing access to growing parts of the overall economy - many rural areas missed out on the digital economy growth that came after the previous market crisis in 2008.
Rural network coverage has strong ties to these five objectives and purposes. Beyond the coverage-related challenges, rural communities face penetration-related challenges. In the US, the rural penetration for fixed broadband in 2019 was 63 percent, versus 75 percent in urban and 79 percent in suburban areas. The mobile broadband rural penetration was 71 percent versus 79 percent for both urban and suburban areas. According to PEW in their 2019 study.
Closing or reducing the digital divide requires both coverage and penetration-related initiatives – especially in a world where demand has changed because of the pandemic.
The five objectives above are still valid, but the pandemic is changing society's priorities on three fronts: remote education, remote working and remote healthcare.
Getting broadband access to schools has long been a priority, as few – if any – educational activities can be facilitated efficiently in the current circumstances without access to broadband. On top of that, schools in rural communities have supported students without broadband at home through alternative solutions. Schools are opening up after school hours for students who need high-speed internet access for their homework. This model provided relief when the needs were limited to homework.
The pandemic has put rural broadband needs in focus for remote education. During the pandemic all education, not just homework, is taking place in students' homes. A considerable challenge is to connect teachers who are teaching from home over video communication platforms. The pandemic has shown the importance of enabling all students and teachers to be able to undertake education from home. Moving forward, we should use the skills developed out of necessity during the pandemic, and integrate them as an essential part of the future of teaching and learning.
In addition, rural areas have long suffered from a brain drain as talented students move to urban areas, driven by their ambition to earn a college degree. Few returns after graduation and reversing the urbanization trend or eliminating the initial move is a question of survival for rural areas. Forward-looking rural communities must leverage the current crisis to institutionalize digital education skills for ALL students and teachers. That way, when students reach the point of pursuing a college degree, they choose to stay and leverage digital college education or move to a city and embrace an urban lifestyle. The digital education skills they acquire now will give them that choice in the future - an option all students in rural areas will benefit from.
In urban areas, the transition to working from home pretty much happened overnight. Any information worker with a laptop and a video conferencing app could leverage their home broadband and start working from home. This transition was cumbersome in rural areas for two reasons: fewer professionals in rural areas work in digital industries where it is possible to move their work to their home, and the broadband network supporting a family of workers and students at home has become bottlenecked.
Remote urban workers have also realized that remote working can be either from the primary home or a secondary/vacation home. As such, they are putting the spotlight on broadband capabilities in their secondary/vacation home. Is it good enough for remote working, as well as remote working and remote education at the same time? Large tech companies are redefining their remote working policies to allow people to move from urban to rural areas and to hire workers on remote contracts. This trend has the potential to reverse part of the urbanization trends that have been ongoing for decades. Any work you can do remotely during the pandemic is a candidate to move to rural as the new norm for professionals who would rather be living in a rural area with their current job.
Rural communities must consider the role their broadband infrastructure will play in attracting digital workers. Educated professionals can pursue a digital career without moving to a city in the first place. Digital professionals are packing up their urban life and finding a better lifestyle in rural communities. Any community with aspirations to attract both these types of professionals and tap into a new "brain-train" needs excellent broadband infrastructure. It will be the decisive factor for anyone looking to settle down in rural areas.
Healthcare in rural communities has been challenging to address even for primary needs, starting with attracting well-educated doctors and medical professionals to settle down in an area with limited career opportunities. But the pandemic fundamentally changes the supply side.
The pandemic has forced doctors and medical professionals to master remote consultations overnight. The transition is opening up a long-term opportunity for basic primary care in the form of limited healthcare professions locally, remotely supported by doctors and other medical specialists.
Rural communities can consider embracing these hybrid models by leveraging the remote consultation models developed during the pandemic to become mainstream in the future.
Moving from vision to action
The large changes in demand for rural broadband drive change on the broadband supply side, of which, the supply side is divided into three major categories:
- Areas where competing providers have a business case
- Areas where a sole provider has a positive business case
- Areas requiring subsidies of investments and operations
Facilities-based competition between two service providers serve areas for scenario one. Scenario two and three require a rethinking of what we see as the endgame. Competition between two or more facilities is not always an option.
In rural communities or neighborhoods where a single service provider can be profitable, bonding between service providers, citizens and businesses becomes critical. This bonding should be centered around what network capabilities to expect and on what commercial terms. The single most vital objective for this scenario is to maximize the broadband take-rates. Low take-rates for these areas drop service providers from category two to category three.
The third category represents the most challenging part of the digital divide to close. Citizens in this area are few and live far apart, making it hard to create a favorable investment case, even if 100 percent of the citizens and all businesses subscribe to the broadband services. This segment, therefore, requires investment subsidies and, in some cases, subsidized operations.
There is no proven recipe for closing the digital divide, but 5G represents a new tool for supporting both fixed and mobile broadband from the same infrastructure. 5G has the potential to become the 21st century road that connects rural communities to the rest of society. Remote education, work and healthcare represent an essential part of this digital future - and we are one step away from its realization.
If you’re looking inspiration, explore these five actions rural service providers in the US can take to start leveraging 5G.