Over 1 billion people worldwide live in rural communities where internet access is poor or completely unavailable. This severely limits their access to key digital services such as telehealth and online education, as well as job opportunities that involve telecommuting.
This digital divide persists in both developed and developing countries and threatens to become “the new face of inequality,” according to UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. In September 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced US$502 million for high-speed Internet in rural communities to help address the issue in the United States.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) paper “Rural Wi-Fi Connectivity: Challenges, Use Cases and Case Studies” demonstrates why Wi-Fi is the most economical and effective technology for bridging the digital divide in small towns, remote communities and other sparsely populated areas, utilising the best available backhaul solution.
Strategies and use cases
The report includes strategies and best practices that service providers can use to ensure the right quality of service, making Wi-Fi ideal for distance learning, telehealth, e-commerce, the internet of things (IoT), streaming video and other consumer, business and government applications.
Through use cases and real-world case studies, the report explores a wide variety of deployment scenarios that address the unique challenges of rural environments, with different types of backhaul, targeted applications, market conditions and other factors.
The report also provides regulators with guidance for maximising Wi-Fi’s ability to bridge the digital divide in rural areas. A prime example is ensuring that the new 6 GHz band is available for use in their countries, giving service providers additional spectrum to support more users and deliver the requisite speeds and performance.
Wi-Fi enables mobile operators, telcos and other service providers to address a wide variety of existing and potential use cases, giving them a much more versatile and cost-effective technology for expanding their services into rural areas.
Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, says Wi-Fi is uniquely positioned to extend voice, video and broadband services to the nearly 1 billion people worldwide in rural areas who have poor or no connectivity.
He reasoned that Wi-Fi’s ubiquity means it has the kind of high-volume low-cost structure that’s critical for ensuring devices and services can be priced low enough to maximize adoption. This makes Wi-Fi is economically and technologically ideal to address the digital divide in rural areas.
Dr. Rajkumar Upadhyay, executive director at C-DOT India, and co-author of the report, commented that the demand for data is exponentially increasing globally. This is well supported by an affordable device ecosystem, availability of a variety of quality content, over-the-top (OTT) services, e-education, e-health and other new use cases.
Covid-19 has fuelled this demand further and uptake is increasing in rural areas. Wi-Fi, an unlicensed band technology, is key both from access and backhaul perspective.
“The use of Wi-Fi technology to establish point-to-point and multi-point links in an unlicensed band is one of the alternate and affordable technologies to extend connectivity from fibre points of presence to nearby villages."