According to ABI Research, in 2019, an estimated $20.2 billion will be invested in developed and emerging market rural cell sites, a 1.2% increase from 2018. Mobile operators are responding to local community and state regulatory pressure to ensure that mobile cellular coverage in rural areas is not just voice-capable but also mobile broadband-capable, ABI says.
Mobile operators and infrastructure vendors are also in the process of rebooting the typical cell-site deployment approach. The macro base-station is now being complemented by low-cost small cells that deliver coverage to a specific rural village or town. Small cell unit shipments are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.9% to reach $2.2 billion by the end of 2024.
"Novel engineering and manufacturing processes have not just made rural cell-site solutions cheaper but also more versatile," said Ling Kangrui, research analyst at ABI. "Innovative re-inventions of the traditional cell site include Huawei's RuralStar Lite and Nokia's Kuha cell-site. Huawei claims that it has been able to reduce the cost of its RuralStar Lite solution to around $20,000 and therefore offers a lower return of investment time of between three to five years. The Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP) ventures, such as Parallel Wireless vRAN and Fairwave base station solutions, have radically altered the typical cell site total cost of ownership model for the operator. Furthermore, tethered and untethered, 'balloon-based' solutions such as Altaeros' SuperTower and Alphabet's Loon will potentially disrupt the macro cell-site business model."
"Several mobile network operators are taking proactive steps to prioritize the coverage needs of their rural end-users," said Jake Saunders, vice president at ABI. "Telefonica has enabled mobile connectivity in remote Latin America by using the Parallel Wireless vRAN solution, which features multi-mode and carrier capabilities. Vodafone Egypt and Vipnet Croatia are some of the operators who have adopted Ericsson Psi Coverage, a low-cost RAN solution designed to utilize a single radio unit for rural deployment. There are also novel initiatives to combine solar-powered small cells with off-grid lithium batteries to provide communications and power to local communities."