Connectivity is critical for economic growth and social sustainability. It is becoming increasingly significant in our everyday lives and is an enabler that has profoundly changed how we live, work and stay connected with family and friends.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, including mandated isolation and social distancing, the shift of essential services such as health, education, work and shopping to online platforms has accelerated. As restrictions ease, these services are likely to remain digitally driven.
Yet this rapid transformation is occurring at a time when many Australians still lack sufficient access to mobile connectivity. For many years, rural and remote communities have struggled to gain telecommunications parity with urban areas.
A 2020 Roy Morgan research report commissioned by Telstra found that “gaps between digitally included and excluded Australians are substantial and widening for some groups”. With parts of Australia having no or inadequate coverage, this lack of connectivity affects communities’ liveability, productivity and safety. There is a risk that this ‘digital divide’ will deepen as access to essential and value-added services are increasingly dependent on high-speed, low-cost connectivity.
Regional Australia: Backbone of a nation
Regional Australia makes a vital contribution to Australians’ quality of life. Thus, the dividends of improved regional connectivity will be experienced nationally.
Roughly one-third of Australians live outside our major urban areas. Regional Australia is our economic backbone, chiefly through primary industry and tourism. It provides the bulk of our food and energy; our farms produce 93% of all food consumed in Australia. And resources (mining and agriculture) are our single-largest source of export revenue. Their contribution to employment is also significant; the mining sector directly employs more than 261,000 people and the agricultural sector employs more than 322,000 people.
The regions’ contribution to our national identity and cultural life is equally important, being home to numerous indigenous communities and producing many great entertainers, artists and athletes. Australians spend nearly half of their tourism dollars in regional areas; providing quality tourism services and experiences is therefore critical to the economy. Many Australians are also swapping the city for the country to enjoy a non-urban lifestyle, taking advantage of the increased acceptance of remote working arrangements.
In a country the size and geographic dispersity of Australia, telecommunication services are critical lifelines for regional communities. As such, reliable and resilient connectivity makes an enormous difference to the quality of life outside metropolitan areas. Connectivity improves regional communities’ ability to access medical, professional, and government services online, shop, and stay in touch with families, friends, and interest groups. It allows regional businesses to reach new markets, enhance productivity and attract and retain staff.
Connectivity is also critical for safety. When emergencies – such as bushfires, floods, cyclones or even road accidents – occur, reliable mobile coverage allows for faster responses and better access to updates and safety information.
Improved telecommunications services can empower Australia’s rural and remote communities to thrive and contribute to our prosperity. At this critical juncture, all Australians should be able to access information, services and communities online, regardless of location.
The regional challenge
Rural and remote Australians have long struggled with access to high-quality services. New technologies combined with a large landmass and low population density make providing high-quality connectivity a significant challenge for service providers.
Both Federal and State Governments are taking significant steps to address coverage along major transport routes and throughout rural and remote communities. Initiatives include the National Broadband Network’s priority rollout in regional areas and funding subsidies such as the Mobile Black Spot Program and the Regional Connectivity Program. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have also made significant investments to make the deployment of their networks more efficient, but more needs to be done to close the coverage gap.
While progress is ongoing, Australia covers a total area of 7.69 million square kilometres and expanding mobile coverage to all communities is a major challenge for MNOs.
Technically, typical macrocell sites have a range of 15 kilometres, which is used to deliver mobile connectivity to urban areas. However, this model is not optimal for rural and remote communities. The high costs of deploying enough mobile base stations to provide a suitable coverage footprint for a relatively small number of customers is significant. Rugged or remote terrain can further add to operational costs and risks. Such installations also rely on suitable backhaul, power from the electricity grid and ongoing access to local service teams for maintenance and repair.
In many instances, it is simply not viable for MNOs to increase mobile coverage in regional areas due to prohibitive costs, lower revenue and complex logistics. Without innovative technologies, new business models and a more coordinated approach to network design, build and operation, we are unlikely to see the required network expansion to serve our rural and remote communities properly.
Technical innovations and business solutions
Encouragingly, new solutions are emerging. Evolving technologies and business models have the potential to reduce capital and operational expenditure, making the provision of mobile connectivity more feasible in areas that are not currently commercially viable, and maximising the impact of government-funded programs.
There is extensive innovation in the telecommunications sector, from tried-and-tested solutions to concepts still in their design phases. Many of these look to address a network’s critical components — base stations, backhaul and energy — to deliver significant cost and efficiency savings.
For instance, innovative alternatives to traditional macro cell sites could increase mobile connectivity in rural communities and improve return on investment for regional area network coverage.
One example is a wide-area coverage solution using a high-power, high-tower LTE network to fill coverage gaps and offload traffic from an existing macro network during peak times. The wide area coverage solution could replace multiple small or macro sites reducing total cost of ownership from the point of view of the MNO that would want to cover that same area with alternative means.
Ultimately a wide-area coverage solution could substantially reduce the cost per area covered allowing larger areas to be deployed quickly and cost effectively and providing capacity overlay to existing areas that have poor or marginal coverage. This could also facilitate competition as barriers to deploying wide-area coverage are lowered. Different place-based solutions will be required depending on the area and population being served, for example wide-area coverage for town clusters versus highly targeted coverage for more isolated and dispersed areas.
With technical solutions on the horizon, another important priority is taking a more innovative approach to business models. There needs to be a shift in network deployment and management techniques. This shift includes moving beyond the traditional business models that have enabled network rollouts to date. There is a growing incentive to use shared services to service less densely populated areas with 4G or 5G economically.
One example is the ‘neutral host’ or ‘neutral host network’ (NHN) model. A Neutral-Host Network (NHN) is a third-party owned cellular network, providing wholesale mobile coverage solutions to MNOs or other communications service providers (CSPs).
The NHN model can significantly reduce MNOs’ capital and operational expenditure requirements while mitigating deployment risks. This shared model enables operators to focus their resources on competition in the service layer rather than building their own networks.
Critically, the NHN model is adaptable. In some regions, it will be about infrastructure sharing to enable rural rollout of mobile services. In others, it will be a multi-asset offering that can help enable 5G, smart cities/communities and convergence. The many potential use cases for digital connectivity drives a need for multi-purpose neutral host networks.
There are various technical and business-model options for NHNs, together they represent forms of network-sharing which can enhance competition, improve utility for consumer and business users, and enable objectives of government and municipal authorities to be realised.
Deployments in rural and remote communities must address the unique needs of the area and population to be served. It is therefore unlikely that a single solution would address all regional areas’ coverage challenges. However, MNOs, government and all other industry stakeholders should continue to pursue innovative technological solutions and alternative business models. Taking a holistic view of multipurpose and interoperable networks is crucial.
Innovative technologies such as wide-area coverage solutions can address coverage and capacity requirements. Simultaneously, new business models and collaborative partnerships can lower both capital investment and operational cost for programs led by both Government and MNOs, providing an effective route to expanding regional coverage.
Our rural and remote communities are critical to the economy; providing improved connectivity is fundamental to keeping businesses viable and communities vibrant.