MWC16: What’s Already Happening at Mobile World Congress – A Focus on Rural Areas

Ed Gubbins

Ed Gubbins

Summary Bullets:

  • Mobile access infrastructure solutions focused on rural and remote areas are already a trend at MWC16.
  • Infrastructure improvements in rural areas pose the potential for growth from at least two primary sources.

The benefit of waiting too long to write a “What to Expect at Mobile World Congress” blog is that you get to write a “What’s Already Happening at Mobile World Congress” blog.

You can already guess many of the topics that mobile access infrastructure vendors will be talking about at MWC16: 5G, unlicensed spectrum, Internet of Things, etc. Some of the pre-MWC announcements they’ve already made have focused on an area you might not have predicted: remote and rural networks.

  • Ericsson is promoting its “Mobile Broadband Expander” solution, which is aimed at efficiently upgrading existing GSM sites to WCDMA by sharing infrastructure between the two networks, including power supplies, transport equipment and even existing antennas. This offering is positioned under the umbrella marketing message of “Mobile Broadband for Everyone” – bringing Internet access to the half of the world that still doesn’t have it. Ericsson marketing people describe a hypothetical old woman working in a Myanmar shoe factory accessing the Internet for the first time using a smartphone.
  • Nokia unveiled its FastMile solution for using LTE to deliver home broadband in remote and rural areas that lack wireline broadband. FastMile employs macrocell and supporting small-cell eNodeBs along with indoor modems and outdoor antennas deployed at each home and a cloud-based controller. In its purpose, FastMile is reminiscent of the Wireless-to-the-X solution Huawei promoted at last year’s MWC, but with fewer specifics regarding throughput speeds and a role for small cells that wasn’t included in Huawei’s descriptions.

So, why are rural and remote areas getting this attention? After all, hasn’t Ericsson been hailing a worldwide trend toward urbanization for some time now that mobile operators need to accommodate? And aren’t the Small Cell Forum’s most recent estimates of the remote/rural opportunity for small cells over the next few years pretty meager?

One factor in the backdrop of the current promotion of rural solutions is the large-scale mobile network improvements taking place in India, where rural areas are a significant portion of the national landscape. According to recent reports, India has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s second-largest market for smartphones. You can see this in vendor marketing. Though it’s not associated with MWC specifically, Nokia is also dedicating messaging, in the hectic WMC season, to initiatives to bring WiFi to remote rural areas in India. Meanwhile, Huawei is promoting Telenor India’s deployment of its “Lean GSM” solution.

More broadly, rural and remote areas represent another growth opportunity for operators. Rural subscribers may not be as high-value as urban dwellers, but:

  • The more operators struggle to penetrate enterprises as a growth opportunity, the more it seems easier by comparison to sell a smartphone to that old shoemaker in Myanmar (especially as device prices decline) and bet on her becoming more addicted to data as a result.
  • Rural and remote areas also, in some cases, pose Internet of Things opportunities (e.g., agriculture, utilities) that help to justify investment in this infrastructure that can be aimed at multiple areas of return.
  • Although rural areas represent a different set of economics in terms of subscriber density, they also don’t pose as many challenges in terms of network interference concerns and coordination/optimization requirements – and that has its own economic value.

Granted, there are obvious reasons why even RAN vendors generally don’t talk about rural areas with the kind of excitement that surrounds sexier topics like 5G or IoT. But, at MWC, in between virtual reality demonstrations and network-connected drones, top RAN vendors chasing the most important opportunities they can find will be talking about an old woman in Myanmar making shoes.

About Ed Gubbins
Ed serves as Senior Analyst for Mobile Access Infrastructure in the Current Analysis Service Provider Infrastructure Group. He focuses on tracking, analyzing and reporting on developments impacting mobile infrastructure and mobile networking: 2G and 3G RAN and packet core along with, LTE, metro-scale Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

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