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According to 2010 U.S. Census data, nearly one in five Americans lives in rural or frontier areas. Yet, despite global advances, and the fact that there are more mobile devices than people in the world, many rural areas in the U.S. remain disconnected and left behind.

FCC data indicates wide swaths of the U.S., from Western States to Appalachia remain largely cut off from 3G and 4G mobile data services. So what is being done to transition the population living outside urban areas to next generation services?

While the reach of LTE is now significant, a large majority of new network deployments have been installed as an adjunct technology to existing networks rather than coverage expansion of a next generation deployments. This means rural operators continue to put money and resources into the continued support of 2G and 3G services, which are quickly becoming outdated.

Rural markets with low population density present challenges for return on investment (ROI) when structuring a commercial cellular network. The costs associated with new network expansion build-outs and on-going operations compared to the revenue gained in these areas have historically prevented Tier-1 carriers from expanding to these underserved regions. Even with substantial subsidies planned from the government, there will still likely be uncharted areas left in the dark.

To achieve connectivity in these underserved areas, we have to be smarter by stepping away from the typical urban deployment playbook. In doing so, there are three key factors that will need to take precedence: Scalability, Flexibility and Cost Effectiveness.

Scalability

Rather than deploying one large, stand-alone centralized core network, rural operators need a scalable commercial grade core. Developing and deploying a secure, customized network solution that meets specific needs and providing upgrade paths to augment existing systems with a new technology and/or capacity allows commercial networks to evolve from fallback technologies into an LTE infrastructure that is sized, optimized and designed for use in rural markets.

Rural networks will require an all-IP based architecture in order to support future networks and be successful. Because of the cost and time associated with constructing macro cellular towers and mounting antennas, amplifiers and eNodeB’s, in addition to various other components, the bar to entry into underserved areas has always been high. Regulators and policy makers should work to support and incentivize smaller, more agile networks that can be scaled out seamlessly over time.  

Flexibility

Rural communities need customized solutions that fit both their specific needs and operating environments. These solutions should come in a compact form that is highly adaptable to the operator's current resources and infrastructure. Network solutions that can utilize traditional tower infrastructure as well as rooftop installations provide operators with the flexibility needed to meet their coverage and capacity requirements in areas that lack the traditional infrastructure means.

Cost Effectiveness

Utilizing smaller, more agile networks will also reduce power requirements. Given advancements in hardware and software technology in the form of core network virtualization, a complete 4G LTE commercial network is now able to operate on a fraction of the power once required to run 2G and 3G network equipment. This lower power consumption opens other alternative power options for operators, such as solar panels, to support a boxed 4G LTE network in the rural and frontier areas of America. More cost effective solutions leveraging virtual cores and smaller hardware footprints now make it feasible to provide 4G LTE coverage to households which previously have never had the opportunity to own a cell phone.

Necessity is the mother of invention—and access to wireless networks today is a necessity the world over. It’s time that industry, regulators, policy makers, and stakeholders, come together to forge common sense solutions that learn from the past, so that we can fully and finally bridge the digital divide here at home.

Markie Britton is Corporate Communications Manager for Tecore Networks. Tecore is a communications solutions company that specializes in the design, development and deployment of multi-technology mobile networks.

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