opinion


Making rural intelligent networks a reality

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Nermin Mohamed, Head of Telecommunications Solutions at Wind River, looks at how to tackle the problem of rural connectivity.

Rural connectivity has long been a topic of contention and despite efforts to improve connectivity provision for those living outside of UK towns and cities, the COVID-19 pandemic laid to bare just how much work is required to balance out the digital inequalities that exist between town and country. In 2020 the ONS reported 5% of UK adults (2.7 million) did not have access to internet; in the age of information access to internet is imperative—it ensures students can access online classrooms, that people can work remotely, or that doctors and nurses can provide telemedicine services to their rural patients.

Thankfully, some solutions are being brought forward to attempt to remedy the problem—recently three of the UK’s mobile operators announced they were working on a shared rural network initiative to improve connectivity across the country. This is a great first step. But what else goes into building rural networks, and how can operators ensure these networks are intelligent? And more importantly, how can they leverage the intelligent edge to bring the most value to those who will use the network?

The end of the postcode lottery

While internet access has today become a utility in our modern world, for those in rural communities connectivity can often feel like a luxury. As urban populations start to enjoy the benefits of 5G roll outs and anticipate further deployments in months to come, for many rural communities, 5G seems like a pipe dream that is still several years away. While the rest of the world gets to appreciate the benefits of higher speeds, people who live in rural or hard-to-reach areas live a life that literally slows down.

Building an intelligent rural network aims to solve this issue. Intelligent networks enable fast, reliable and secure internet access. But more than that, intelligent rural networks are a gateway to connecting fully wired smart cities to this future 5G clever countryside, or to building a nationwide economic network that provides a wide range of opportunities for everyone—regardless of where they live. The true promise of the intelligent rural network goes beyond connectivity; it’s about the ability to upgrade rural communities by providing them with the same level of access as those in inner cities.

Unlocking the potential of 5G

For intelligent rural networks to deliver on their promise, they need to be reliable, fast, and affordable for the end-customer. This means making necessary investment in 5G technology to go beyond the speed, network capacity, and reliability capabilities of today’s 4G networks.

The primary obstacle to receiving high speed internet access in rural locations has been affordability—with smaller populations, operators can’t achieve the economies of scale they enjoy in urban areas. It simply doesn’t make sense for network providers to be expanding coverage areas if it’s not profitable to them, especially when faced with mounting pressures to monetise 5G investment and deliver ROI. If the business case isn’t there, the only alternative is to pass on the cost to the end-customer, making high speed internet access extremely expensive, which in turn reduces its uptake among rural communities.

But this is where the “intelligent” part of the intelligent rural network comes in to address this cost barrier. An intelligent network allows real-time computing power to be moved close to the edge where it is generated, meaning easier deployments and as a result, lower operational costs. Manual maintenance and management of the network becomes a thing of the past as intelligent edge devices can be automatically aligned and management software can be used to monitor the whole network. Combining 5G with the intelligent edge can give the same workload performance with less overhead, resulting in significantly lower cost both for the network provider and for the end-customer.

The intelligent edge in practice

There are several areas where a 5G-powered intelligent rural network will prove to be especially beneficial for rural communities.

Farming is a sector that has drastically evolved since the horse and plough, today’s farmers are increasingly using a plethora of digital tools including drones, sensors, and equipment to monitor crops, and make decisions on when to harvest and where to sell. These tools generate big data and with it comes the demand for 5G to compute and process large volumes of data in real-time. But given their remote location and poor connectivity, farmers’ abilities to use modern means of production can sometimes become difficult. Indeed research from NFU in 2020 found that more than four in ten farmers still don’t have adequate fast and reliable broadband. By using a 5G powered intelligent rural network and moving compute power to the intelligent edge, farmers will now be able to process the vast amount of data created by their various sensors, devices, and drones, and be better equipped to run their agricultural holdings in a way that is more efficient and more productive.

Another sector set to benefit from intelligent rural networks is education. With e-learning becoming prevalent, especially in the wake of the pandemic, it is critical that students in rural locations have access to their virtual classrooms. AR and VR are two technologies set to benefit from 5G connectivity that will transform the classrooms of tomorrow. By combining 5G and the intelligent edge, rural schools could start to roll out AR/VR teaching applications without being hindered by latency or network reliability issues. Thanks to intelligent edge devices, all the data from the AR/VR device is processed at the edge of the network, right where it is generated, preventing lags in connectivity, and maximising the user experience for both pupil and teacher.

What’s next?

The pandemic has resulted in major cities across the UK beginning to see a steady decline in their inhabitants, with more focus now being placed on more rural and remote locations boasting more space, more fresh air and better quality of life. As rural towns become more attractive to remote workers the demand for above average connectivity will certainly increase.

Operators in the UK are already taking the step towards improving connectivity in rural environments, but it’s important that this goes beyond LTE connectivity and towards full 5G network deployments for all rural locations. In addition to this, operators will then need to think about leveraging new approaches such as open RAN and vRAN to lower the cost of deployment of 5G networks, especially where the “last mile” is concerned. They’ll need to evolve to build these intelligent rural networks that leverage AI, analytics, automation, and edge distributed clouds, and turn the rural connectivity dream into a reality. Not doing so will see rural communities left behind.

 

Dr. Nermin Mohamed is Head of Telecommunications Solutions at Wind River, responsible for developing and maintaining Telecommunications strategy. Nermin has a strong Telecom background spanning more than 20 years. Previous to joining Wind River, Nermin is credited for driving new technologies for service providers while working at Nortel, Ericsson, Huawei and Tech Mahindra. Nermin has held a number of senior positions in the Telecom industry as well as academia including R&D, engineering, marketing, strategy, business development, and solution sales. Nermin holds a PhD from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Electrical Engineering/Wireless Communications.

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