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Will Rural Areas Benefit As 5G Comes into View?

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With the reality of 5G coming rapidly into view, high performance mobile services are reaching unprecedented levels around the world. Bhanu Durvasula, vice president, International Division at Hughes, reflects on the role of satellite in 5G use cases involving multi-orbit solutions and multi-transport technologies, effective backhaul for future 5G networks, and the impact of open standards. He emphasizes the concept that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” meaning that, as 5G is deployed in more urban areas, rural areas will benefit too through improved services with 4G/LTE and access to more capabilities and applications with 5G down the road.

“It’s not just likely, it’s being mandated in many areas,” Mr. Durvasula explained. “In Brazil, for example, the 5G spectrum auction will take place in November this year. For a company to win big and get that spectrum, they have an obligation to provide LTE service in remote areas.”

A government mandated approach enables rural areas to benefit from better services, reduces the digital divide and ensures the gap doesn’t widen as 5G becomes more ubiquitous.

“True ubiquity of 5G itself will depend on 4G services becoming available in these remote areas,” he said.

Transition from 4G to 5G in rural locations will take a few years. For service providers, these locations with lower population densities and larger coverage areas are significantly less profitable for their investment as compared to densely populated urban areas. This is especially true for mmWave 5G deployments that provide gigabit data rates and are primarily targeted for mid to large cities and their suburbs. When operating at high frequencies, the signals are unable to travel far (typically less than a mile from the cell tower) and require many cell towers to cover a given rural location. Consequently, there is no real incentive for mobile network operators (MNOs) to undertake such implementations.

A more realistic 5G deployment for rural areas (when it eventually happens) will be with transmission in long-range, low-bandwidth frequencies or what are known as the low and mid bands (600 MHz to 900 MHz and 2.5 GHz to 4.2 GHz, respectively). This will require fewer cell towers since signals can travel a few miles. Of course, this will mean lower data rates (typically around 250+ Mbps) rather than the gigabit rates available with mmWave operation in urban areas. Even still, speeds will be higher than LTE.

As rural areas migrate from 2G/3G to 4G/LTE and eventually 5G, advances in technology can be rolled out to improve communities and peoples’ lives. One example Mr. Durvasula provided is precision agriculture. It utilizes technology on farm equipment along with GPS systems, artificial intelligence and real-time data collection to guide a range of activities. Sensors measure plant water and soil status or analyze crop health. Imagery can optimize crop placement and improve decision-making. This can significantly increase crop yields and cut down on water as well as pesticide and fertilizer use. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated an 18% increase in farm production with the addition of rural broadband.

“These capabilities can become automated with IoT (Internet of Things) applications and mobile-edge computing that happen locally and in real-time,” he said.

Another application in great demand is telemedicine in rural areas, where access to health care is either unavailable or has declined in recent years. For example, residents in these communities with mental health issues often struggle to get treatment from qualified professionals. Telehealth via broadband will help address this challenge and improve peoples’ health and quality of life.

Education efforts will also benefit when teachers are able to connect with children in remote places who do not currently have learning opportunities equal to their counterparts in urban settings. The appetite for connectivity is also strong for travelers who want seamless coverage as they work, roam and wander. Here too, satellite not only closes the gaps in terrestrial coverage but is essential for connectivity on trains, ships and planes—and for innovations like self-driving cars. These are just a few of the ways communities everywhere will be uplifted, Mr. Durvasula said, as the 5G tide rises.