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One reason the digital divide is still so wide in remote areas is that connecting those localities is 35% more expensive than for cities. Innovation brought costs way down.

How a village in Ghana got connected

A Huawei innovation expands broadband access to rural parts of Africa

By Christopher Marquis and Haitao Yin

For most of us, the Internet is like electricity: something you don’t even notice unless it shuts off.

But for millions of people, Internet access remains a distant dream. No apps, no streaming video, no social media channels; no GPS or online banking or using an app to book a doctor’s appointment.

The good news is that access to broadband is increasing. The number of people who are not connected to broadband networks has shrunk from 750 million in 2018 to 570 million today. Most of that improvement came from South Asia, particularly India, which in 2019 launched its National Broadband Mission to provide broadband access to every village in the country by 2022.

But in other areas, mobile broadband access remains low. In sub-Saharan Africa – where 60% of people live in rural areas – 36% of the population is still not even covered by a 3G network and only 21% subscribe to mobile internet services.

Why is the digital divide still so wide in rural and remote areas? One reason is that expanding access to broadband has traditionally been a costly endeavor: cell sites are 18% more expensive in rural areas and 35% more expensive in remote areas in comparison to cities. Installing a cell site usually costs around $300,000, although the cost can reach $1 million depending on local conditions.

Also, revenue generated for operators in these areas can be 90% lower than at urban sites, so it can take up to 10 years for operators to recover their initial investment. This means many villages remain cut off from the internet and, effectively, from the world.

Overcoming obstacles with innovation

Installing base stations in remote places involves unique challenges. In a rural area, a typical cell site needs at least three high-powered antennas mounted on towers, which are usually around 78 to 164 feet high. Furthermore, the local power grid is likely unreliable, so each site will require a diesel generator. These sites also usually need a microwave connection to the rest of the network, so dishes must be installed with a line-of-sight connection to each other.

Connecting rural areas profitably is an ongoing challenge. To help solve it, students from both of our universities, Cornell University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, went to Ghana to see how Huawei engineers had helped solve the problem by creating a new type of cell site tower. Dubbed RuralStar, it was optimized for rural areas. The idea was to lower installation costs and give operators a quicker return on their investment.

The Huawei team had started by experimenting with the material of the cell site tower. To minimize costs, team members initially made prototypes from wood, although later they went back to using steel. They also shortened the tower height from 164 feet to 19 feet, lowering construction costs. This was possible because they used a 4G wireless connection to link base stations to the network rather than microwave dishes. Operators no longer needed a line-of-sight connection between the dishes and had more more flexibility on where to locate the site.

From $330,000 to $15,000 per site

The team also experimented with different ways to power each cell site. By using solar panels instead of a diesel generator, they freed operators from having to buy diesel fuel and helped reduce overall energy consumption. Plus, operators would no longer need to regularly send technicians to refuel the base station, cutting down on labor costs.

These innovations helped reduce the overall cost of building a base station from $330,000 to less than $15,000, making it an economically viable proposition for operators.

Just two months after the pilot project was launched, more than 500 people were connected to the system. This usage rate, which was much higher than expected, meant that the operator, MTN Ghana, only had to wait 30 months to see a return on its investment. Since then, MTN Ghana has deployed more than 400 RuralStar sites in Ghana, connecting 900,000 people. To date, this system is being used across 60 different countries to connect more than 50 million people to the internet.

One of our biggest priorities as a society should be closing the digital divide so that no one gets left behind. With innovative approaches to deploying broadband that deliver both business and social value,­ we’re hopeful that the telecoms industry can help reach the UN’s lofty goal of connecting everyone to the internet by 2030.

Chris Marquis is the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at the University of Cambridge and formerly Samuel C. Johnson Professor of Global Sustainable Enterprise at Cornell University. Haitao Yin is Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

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