Over 1 billion people worldwide live in rural communities where internet access is poor or completely unavailable. This severely limits their access to key digital services such as telehealth and online education, as well as job opportunities that involve telecommuting.
This digital divide persists in both developed and developing countries and threatens to become “the new face of inequality,” according to UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. In September 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced $502 million for High-Speed Internet in Rural Communities to help address the issue in the United States.
Strategies and Use Cases for Bridging the Rural Digital Divide
The new WBA report, led by WBA members C-DOT, HFCL and Meta, includes strategies and best practices that service providers can use to ensure the right quality of service, making Wi-Fi ideal for distance learning, telehealth, e-commerce, the internet of things (IoT), streaming video and other consumer, business and government applications. Through use cases and real-world case studies, the report explores a wide variety of deployment scenarios that address unique challenges of rural environments, with different types of backhaul, targeted applications, market conditions and other factors.
The report also provides regulators with guidance for maximizing Wi-Fi’s ability to bridge the digital divide in rural areas. A prime example is ensuring that the new 6 GHz band is available for use in their countries, giving service providers additional spectrum to support more users and deliver the requisite speeds and performance.
Wi-Fi enables mobile operators, telcos and other service providers to address a wide variety of existing and potential use cases, giving them a much more versatile and cost-effective technology for expanding their services into rural areas. Two examples are:
Fiber providers using Wi-Fi to extend their services into rural areas over microwave. This avoids the expense and lead time of burying or stringing fiber in remote areas, including ones with challenging terrain such as rivers, mountains and rock. “With Wi-Fi 6, the bandwidth over the unlicensed band microwave link will increase and may reach 1 Gbps,” the report says. “One telecom operator in India is already deploying a network called Bharat Air Fiber in rural areas based on similar architecture.
Cellular operators using Wi-Fi to provide fixed and mobile broadband services. The average cost of deploying a cellular tower covering a population of around 4,000 spread across 1 sq. km costs at least 20x more in capital and operational expenses compared to a mere $2,500 for Wi-Fi deployment,” the report says. “This includes outdoor Wi-Fi equipment, external antennas, solar panel, solar charge controller, battery, outdoor PoE, poles and earthing, cabling, and two years of fiber backhaul subscription cost.
Rural Connectivity is Essential to address the Digital Divide
Rural Wi-Fi is ideal for closing the digital divide:
- Two thirds of the world’s school-age children – or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 years old – do not have internet connection in their homes, according to a new joint report from UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
- According to ITU, 2.9 billion of the global population is still offline, with an estimated 96% of them in developing countries. Even among the 4.9 billion counted as “internet users,” many hundreds of millions may get the chance to go online only infrequently, via shared devices, or using connectivity speeds that markedly limit the usefulness of their connection.
- In some of the world’s poorest nations, getting online can cost a staggering 20% or more of per capita Gross National Income (GNI).
Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, said: “Wi-Fi is uniquely positioned to extend voice, video and broadband services to the nearly 1 billion people worldwide in rural areas who have poor or no connectivity. Unlike cellular, Wi-Fi is already included in virtually all smartphones, tablets, laptops, streaming boxes and other devices. This ubiquity also means Wi-Fi has the kind of high-volume low-cost structure that’s critical for ensuring devices and services can be priced low enough to maximize adoption. As our new report shows, these are some of the reasons why Wi-Fi is economically and technologically ideal to address the digital divide in rural areas.”
Dr. Rajkumar Upadhyay, Executive Director at C-DOT India, co-authors of the report, commented: “Demand for data is exponentially increasing globally. This is well supported by an affordable device ecosystem, availability of a variety of quality content, over-the-top (OTT) services, e-education, e-health and other new use cases. Covid-19 has fuelled this demand further and uptake is increasing in rural areas. Wi-Fi, an unlicensed band technology, is key both from access and backhaul perspective. In India, Wi-Fi is being used not only as access but to extend connectivity, for example, from Gram Panchayat (GP) to neighbouring villages. The use of Wi-Fi technology to establish point-to-point and multi-point links in an unlicensed band is one of the alternate and affordable technologies to extend connectivity from fiber points of presence to nearby villages.”
Bhuvnesh Sachdeva, Senior Vice President – Product Development at HFCL Limited, Co-author of the report, said: “Over 40k Wi-Fi public hotspots have been deployed across rural India in the last two years under various schemes introduced by the Government of India. We at IO by HFCL are proud to be the major supplier of robust Wi-Fi equipment to enable such affordable connectivity for all. The state-of-the-art network infrastructure is proving to be a game changer for the lives of thousands of village residents. The residents can now access telemedicine, remote learning, government services, financial services like banking and digital payments, social networking, and entertainment.”