Already more people receive broadband internet wirelessly than
fixed networks, but vendors are competing to reduce the cost of
even copper in rural areas
The broadband access market is characterised by a series of
global disparities. There is disparity in broadband penetration
rates between different regions: in Africa overall broadband
uptake is commonly estimated at less than 1%, while in North
America fixed household broadband penetration is thought to be
There is also disparity in penetration rates between different
countries in one region: according to broadband research
specialist Point Topic, Romania has around 48% of households
connected to fixed broadband compared with 87% or more in the
And then there is disparity in available broadband speeds
between urban and rural areas within individual countries: in
the UK, for example, Edinburgh has an average fixed line
maximum speed of 10.1 megabits a second, while more rural areas
tend to have lower speeds and a greater proportion of customers
who receive speeds less than 2 megs.
Generally speaking, the most broadband-disadvantaged
populations live in the rural parts of poor countries in
Some of the causes of rural broadband deprivation are well
One is an historic lack of investment in wireline and fixed
networks, itself caused by low population densities overall.
"It is fundamentally less expensive to deploy broadband in
densely populated areas because less copper or fibre needs to
be used to pass a number of premises," points out Geoff Burke,
the senior director of corporate marketing at broadband access
Another consideration is rural topography, with sometimes
extended areas of difficult terrain between population centres.
A third consideration is lack of disposable income, especially
in the case of rural communities in developing countries. "In
lower income markets a subscription can easily be 25% of an
average household income and, despite the desire for high-speed
internet access, the projected revenues are a long way from
making commercial deployment an option," notes Oliver Johnson,
CEO of Point Topic.
Other related causes in other locations may be less obvious.
"In North America, there is a direct correlation between
broadband adoption and socio-economic status. In addition,
younger adults are more likely to buy broadband than older
adults," says Burke.
"Rural areas tend to be populated by an aging population, and
of a lower socio-economic condition than their urban
counterparts. This conventional wisdom has discouraged
widespread broadband deployment in rural areas because
anticipated take-up rates could be lower."
Either way, though, the relative lack of broadband availability
in rural areas is seen as an imbalance that requires to be
corrected. Quite apart from the moral aspects of not rectifying
the basic inequality of opportunity suffered by rural
populations, there’s much evidence — some
quantifiable, some less so — that broadband access can
bring substantial benefits to these populations.
Government administration, education, healthcare, employment,
productivity, commerce, innovation, the environment and social
cohesion are all among the sectors that access to broadband has
the potential to improve.
There’s also plenty of analysis that links
increased broadband access with higher GDP.
According to a June 2011 report from the Broadband Commission,
set up by the ITU and Unesco, every 10% increase in broadband
penetration in China is seen as contributing an additional 2.5%
to GDP growth.
The report, Broadband: a Platform for Progress, also cites a
World Bank study that found that there were 1.38 additional
percentage points to GDP growth for every 10 percentage point
increase in broadband penetration - higher than any other
The good-ish news is that efforts to reduce the broadband
divide between rural and urban populations are being helped
along by continuing improvements in communications
technologies. At the same time, new regulatory mechanisms are
being implemented to address rural broadband deficiencies, and
many governments around the world are according a higher
priority to the issue.
On the technology front, there are moves to extend the reach of
copper-based broadband from telephone switches. This broadband
enabling technology allows service to be provided to so-called
"not-spots" beyond a local telephone exchange’s
John Larkin, managing director of the Kenton Group, estimates
that the technology his company has developed extends the range
of DSL signals from the usual five kilometres to 12 kilometres
using existing copper. The technology has been installing in
the UK and is being installed in a Middle East capital city.
"We are very excited by what its launch means for the future of
broadband and providing services to previously inaccessible
customers," says Larkin.
Another promising copper network technique involves the
identification and elimination of interference on copper lines,
increasing the quality, reliability and robustness of the
signal. This in turn enables increases in broadband throughput.
ITU-T, the technology section of the ITU, calls this the
G.Vector standard and one company, Ikanos, has developed a
compliant technology that will enable broadband speeds of 100
megs and more over copper.
Some say that fibre is becoming a viable technology alternative
for deployment in rural areas. "Fibre can reach up to 80
kilometres," explains Burke. "Fibre is a virtually unlimited
waveguide offering broadband speeds that are orders of
magnitude faster than copper solutions. This allows rural
service providers to do more than close the gap — they
can leapfrog their urban counterparts in quality of
Meanwhile satellite connectivity, once something of a minority
sport in terms of rural broadband service provision, is
becoming more and more mainstream. The focus here is on what is
called the Ka band — the letters are pronounced
separately — which runs from 26.5 to 40 gigahertz.
"The future of consumer broadband services over satellite is Ka
band, says Serge Van Herck, CEO of satellite specialist Newtec.
"This is simply because the total capacity offered by other
commercial frequency bands cannot possibly cope with new
Newtec is refurbishing Europe’s largest satellite
broadband network, Astra2 Connect, owned by satellite operator
SES, with next generation Ka-band terminals.
SES delivers broadband internet and voice-over-IP services to
over 80,000 private households and small businesses across
Europe using Newtec technology at a lower frequency, Ku band,
where the download speeds can be up to 6 megs. With the extra
bandwidth at Ka band, Van Herck expects speeds to run up to 10
But mobile cellular is the big news for rural — and
urban — broadband of the future. According to a recent
Infonetics Research report the number of mobile broadband
subscribers is already greater than the number of fixed
Infonetics, in its report Fixed and Mobile Subscribers,
estimates that in 2010 the number of cellular mobile broadband
subscribers jumped almost 60% to 558 million worldwide
— compared with 500 million for fixed broadband
— and mobile should top 2 billion by 2015.
"Mobile in all its forms is going to be an important element of
addressing the yawning divide between rich and poor," ventures
Point Topic’s Johnson.
"Deployment is far cheaper than fixed line and, although the
cost of downloading data and the rate you can do so at
don’t compare well with fixed solutions, it is at
least within reach of individuals and governments through much
of the digitally disadvantaged world."
In parallel with technology developments, governments and ICT
sector regulators are rethinking their approaches to bridging
the rural broadband divide. One idea gaining currency in some
markets is the devolution of responsibility for broadband
expansion down to very local bodies such as councils and
schools with, for example, rural communities piggy-backing on
schools’ broadband networks.
Another idea is that broadband access should be enshrined as a
basic human right, a notion pioneered by Finland and Estonia,
and subsequently suggested by the ITU as one of the
UN’s Millennium Development Goal.
Related to these newer approaches to rural broadband expansion
is the recognition by an increasing number of governments that
such expansion is in the national interest and should,
therefore, be subsidised or stimulated by the injection of
public funds into the sector.
"Government policy can play a key role in both catalysing
broadband deployment through grants and low-interest loans, or
by implementing a regulatory framework that encourages service
providers to expand their capital investments in rural areas
through tax rebates, capital expenditure incentives, or
operational subsidies," suggests Calix’s Burke.
"A key learning from the US broadband stimulus has been that
government funding of very rural networks has a natural
side-benefit of placing a subsidised, high capacity fibre
backbone that often passes through a multitude of communities
en route to the remote location. As a result, service providers
can then use this backbone as a lynchpin in expanding or
building broadband to these bypassed communities as an indirect
result of the government stimulus — amplifying its
affect many times over."
None of the foregoing is intended to suggest that the expansion
of availability and use of rural broadband access is a done and
dusted deal. Funding remains problematic, especially given the
current uncertain global economic climate.
But as well as money, if you can get it, you need a plan. "With
money available for next generation networks and rural
broadband projects, many organisations are diving in, without
really considering clearly what they want to do and how they
want achieve it," argues Richard Kendall, managing director of
telecoms engineering consultancy Nova Incepta.
"One critical early decision should be around which operating
model to choose: whether to build your own network or work with
an existing operator."
Meanwhile, devolving responsibility for system construction and
operation to local entities brings its own challenges, not
least that of the acquisition of the requisite technical
A typical market scenario is that the would-be rural service
provider has an end customer relationship and then uses
different line access services from operators to be able to
deliver the service to the end customer. This requires service
providers to manage their services and subscribers using
different administration, operation and IT infrastructures.
"Rural broadband is being held back by the fact that ISPs have
to create a unique integration separately to each access
network and respective support system," says Matthias Trygg,
CEO of broadband network management company Netadmin Systems.
"This results in large operational expenses and potentially low
quality service fulfilment and assurance processes. In many
cases this precludes commercial viability."
Netadmin reckons that service providers need "a single
interface so that services and subscribers in multiple external
access networks can be managed simply and effectively", says
Trygg. "This will enable efficient service delivery even in
smaller local networks, providing services to not-spots, and
increasing market reach for service providers."
And so, with a fair wind, the efforts of service providers,
equipment vendors, investors, consultants, governments and
local communities, rural broadband disparities can be
transformed into broadband parities. GTB