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The Rural Broadband Situation: Improving all the Time - with True Gigabit Connections on the Horizon

Deploying broadband services in rural areas has always been problematic.  Everyone recognizes the “fairness” factor, but primarily for carrier “ROI” reasons, it has been a very slow process.  Add to the mix the fact that the definition of “rural” can vary from place to place.

For large metro areas with a million plus population, rural could mean just outside the city limits of the surrounding suburbs.  For cities of other sizes, the rural area begins only several miles from the downtown area.  In terms of pure geography, most of any particular country’s area is rural and, as a result, governments around the world have initiated many programs seeking to “incentivize” the process of closing the digital divide between densely- and sparsely-populated areas.

Everyone, everywhere wants the same streaming entertainment, online shopping, interactive gaming and other bandwidth-intensive services.  As a result of this growing customer demand, wireline and wireless options to improve broadband speeds in rural areas have been growing incrementally, particularly over the last few years.  Fiber optic lines have been slowly moving closer to end users, but what could really “jolt” the system would be a faster rollout of increasingly-economical mmWave systems.

mmWave technology has always been an excellent “fiber extender” and last-mile connection option.  V-Band (60GHz) or E-Band (70/80GHz) radios provide a seamless fiber to wireless transition due to their multi-Gigabit throughput capabilities.  Further, in a promising development for the rural sector, Gigabit wireless solutions have exploded on to the market.  Siklu, for example, recently launched its fourth line of 60GHz products within the last three years – all of which have enabled Gigabit access speeds with single digit latencies.  As for the industry as a whole, this year will see another wave of 60GHz products and services based on them, as the latest chipsets enabling powerful, low cost systems hit the market in mid-2019 and product releases are trending towards 3Q 2020.  This trend applies to both infrastructure and customer premises equipment (CPE). 

With this technology there are now even more opportunities for “fiber extension.”  While the image of homes spread across wide open spaces may be a predominant view of rural areas, the fact is that every one of these far-flung communities has a town of some size at its center and every town has a main street.  Increasingly, many of these small towns are gaining access to a fiber optic line, usually down the main thoroughfare and using mmWave for that last 1000 feet. 

mmWave wireless is the ideal solution to connect to this fiber and distribute Gigabit connectivity throughout the region (e.g., a county).  One key reason -- mmWave can “go the distance.”  There is a misconception that mmWave is only a short range technology.  While this can be true with certain frequencies and systems, the fact is mmWave can and does achieve ranges as far as 3 miles easily and can go 6 miles or more using products such as Siklu’s ExtendMM™ in point-to- point connections. 

For the last link to a customer’s home, economical CPEs the size of a smart phone can be installed at the home and connect to radios such as Siklu’s MultiHaul™ product line, which offers simple installations via automatic alignment to maintain the connections and Gigabit services over ranges as far as a quarter mile.  When it comes to connecting these clusters of customers back to the POP, a service provider can backhaul these point-to-multipoint (PtMP) systems with Siklu’s EtherHaul™ point-to-point (PtP) products, which feature link ranges measured in miles.

In conclusion, the advent of 5G is another reason prospects for rural Gigabit broadband delivery are improving and, in that regard, it is useful to distinguish between 5G mobile mmWave (or “new radio”) and the 5G fixed wireless technology described above.  The frequency ranges for 5G NR include spectrum in the “sub-6” GHz bands and the mmWave bands of 24 to 52 GHz.  Certain service providers have begun to use these frequencies to deliver fixed broadband services in urban areas and propose them as a rural solution as well.  One disadvantage in taking this approach is that often times these frequency allocations are obtained via government auctions and the ROI for using them for mobile data is much more lucrative than using them for fixed broadband services.  For instance, mobile carriers in the U.S. charged $1.84 for every mobile Gigabit in 2018, while Internet Access (DSL, Cable etc) yields roughly $0.07 for each Gigabit.  Therefore, this ROI model removes any real incentive mobile carriers have in using these bands for fixed rural broadband service.

Another issue lies in the amount of spectrum available in the 5G NR bands for fixed broadband services.  For example, some 5G deployments will be in the sub 6GHz band, specifically the 3.65GHz band in the US with a total of 150 MHz of available spectrum.  The mmWave bands being targeted for mobility have more available spectrum in order to generate Gigabit connectivity and the initial focus in the U.S. has been on the 28 and 39 GHz bands with a total of roughly 4GHz of spectrum.  

On the other hand, the 60GHz V-Band which is un-licensed and available to all, right now, has 14 GHz of contiguous spectrum.  Pairing it with the 70/80GHz lightly licensed (also open to all, today) E-Band adds another 10GHz of spectrum for a total of 24GHz.  Furthermore, even if rural service providers were interested in using 5G NR bands, when it comes to bidding in auctions for licenses, the large telcos and cable companies with deep pockets usually dominate.  Unless an auction is held specifically for smaller carriers and rural markets, it is difficult for smaller players to win licenses.  

The net result is that for rural markets service providers don’t have access to the licensed bands even if they could build a reasonable business case using them.  The ARPU per home is nowhere near the ARPU for a single mobile subscriber.  When it comes to delivering Gigabits to the rural customers, only Fixed 5G in the 60 and 70/80GHz bands can deliver Gigabits at a cost people can afford, and at a level that generates profits for the carrier.

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