Connecting Rural Communities: Can 5G and Open RAN help bridge the broadband divide?

19/11/21, 7:30 am

Powerful 5G solutions are brought to life by experienced integrators

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index in 2020 shows that while digital inclusion is slowly increasing across Australia, there remains a substantial digital divide in Australia. The ADII reveals substantial differences between Australians living in rural and urban areas. In 2020, digital inclusion is 7.6 points higher in capital cities (65.0) than in rural areas (57.4). Queensland. State and Federal Governments are now making concerted efforts to address the persistent issue of insufficient broadband access in rural communities and 5G may provide a big part of the solution.

5G can play a critical role in closing this broadband access divide in ways previous mobile generations could not because it fulfils both mobile and fixed broadband needs. To do so, however, the long-term economics must also make sense, which is where Open RAN’s vibrant supplier ecosystem and ability to advance 5G infrastructure sharing can be relevant for equality of access to the 5G economy.

The role of 5G in rural networks

5G offers several promising features for supporting rural connectivity:


Ultra-fast mobile broadband

5G provides channel
bandwidth of up to
1 Gbps, enabling
operators to provide
Fixed Wireless Access
(FWA) and mobile
broadband to consumers.
This helps consumers
benefit from online
commerce, entertainment
and education.



Network slicing

Slicing contributes to
resource optimisation
from radio to core, allowing greater flexibility and granular control of the service tailored
to the specific requirements
of user segments such as
local government, residential
or enterprise. This in turn improves the end-user
 experience and helps to
close the divide.



Extended reach

Fibre broadband build-outs
have been expensive,
stretching business cases to recoup the investment. 5G addresses these problems not only by providing broadband access but also by extending
the network’s reach without
laying expensive fibre infrastructure. This evolution
also helps to overcome the
last mile access issues that
have plagued the telecom
industry for decades and open
up improved service options
for the consumer.


Private networks

Many regulators are setting
aside portions of the
mid-band spectrum to
support enterprise
customers, local
governments and private networks. This is also
providing carriers and
enterprises the opportunity
to provide connectivity in
locations that previously
were not viable.


Open RAN: the game-changer

Open RAN is also helping to make 5G more economically viable given its advantages of open interfaces and component-level interoperability. The functional splits enabled by Open RAN architecture offers possibilities to further optimise network design. For example, the ability to aggregate certain RAN functions in Centralized Units (CU’s) helps reduce network cost and complexity. Additionally, increased competition driven by open RAN interfaces unleashes innovation and invites new RU vendors to the market, offering operators the ability to deploy best-of-breed solutions. The industry is already seeing several RU reference architectures being developed to bring new RU products to market.

Open RAN has also enabled neutral host architectures. In this shared infrastructure setting, a neutral host provides towers and other physical infrastructure and allows different providers access and co-location facilities to connect and offer services. Sharing infrastructure in this way reduces the cost and ideally provides a platform for more players and innovators than would a typical, closed mobile network. Cloud-native 5G RAN enable multi-operator RAN (MORAN) and multi-operator core network (MOCN) architectures, creating new economically viable alternatives to support rural buildouts.

Open RAN-based neutral host infrastructure

Shared infrastructure is highly advantageous in the 5G world. In a shared infrastructure network built on Open RAN, network components, applications, physical infrastructure and even spectrum are decoupled. Open RAN radio units support multiple bands and open interfaces to any other vendors’ DUs and CUs. The open environment allows new vendors and innovators to participate and compete with a greater ability to focus on solutions for specific geographies and use cases.

Some countries are encouraging greater private sector participation to explore these possibilities. O-RAN’s open ecosystem, coupled with shared infrastructure initiatives like the UK’s NeutrORAN project, brings added advantages to make the use cases in low density and remote locations more viable. The NeutrORAN approach, supported by NEC’s 5G Center of Excellence (CoE), aims to not only reduce cost and maximise the value derived from 5G infrastructure but also open a 5G B2B2x environment for additional ecosystem participants to leverage this open, shared infrastructure.

For example, CSPs can enable enterprises to build out private 5G extensions of their global corporate network. State and local governments or enterprises may evaluate opportunities to monetise existing public infrastructure, e.g. to support V2X initiatives. Other innovators will be able to identify and address opportunities in markets where CSPs otherwise might not risk or invest in engaging specific communities in new ways, e.g. public safety. With a more open 5G community comes more opportunity for more viable players to address market needs that may have been underserved, unidentified or simply not prioritised in the past.

Closing the broadband gap

Closing the gap in broadband access is a critical economic issue that public-private technology and policy initiatives increasingly aim to address. NEC will continue to be an early adopter of open-network initiatives, just as it did with SDN/NFV more than a decade ago and now with Open RAN. Jointly working with its global carrier customers and supporting public-private initiatives, we remain optimistic that the next 5 years will see accelerated progress in addressing this important issue.


Rahul Chandra
VP of Global 5G Business Development