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Many people take wireless communication networks for granted. They have constant, reliable access wherever they go and whenever they want. However, that’s not the case for all individuals, especially those who live in rural communities. These circumstances create a problem often called the “digital divide.”
The Digital Divide and Its Disadvantages
Consistent connectivity allows people to work, communicate, stay entertained and more. Those who don’t have access to robust wireless communications networks are frequently at significant disadvantages.
A 2022 University of Oxford study entailed researchers examining more than 1.8 million remote job opportunities provided via online platforms from 2013 to 2020. The results showed some regions — such as the Global South — make only marginal contributions to the remote labour market. Most workers reside in high-income countries and metropolitan areas.
Granted, a lack of connectivity is almost certainly not the only reason for those outcomes. However, it’s undeniable in the modern age that wireless communications enable activities people could not otherwise do.
Elsewhere, an Open Signal study assessed how Italy’s 5G rollout affected rural areas. The results indicated a 20% difference in 5G download speeds between rural and urban regions. Moreover, download speeds across all networks were 8.8% slower in country locations. This shows that rural communities with 5G access are not always on par with those in more developed places.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this problem, especially with so many schools switching to online education and companies asking people to work from home when possible. Although the health crisis magnified the issue, it also motivated action from those with the power to make positive changes. Here are some specific things they’ve done to increase wireless access to people in rural areas.
Targeting Rural Areas for Expansion Efforts
One of the most practical ways to improve wireless communications in rural areas is to include those communities in communication providers’ expansion plans.
This occurred recently in the United Kingdom. Statistics indicate more than 60% of the population can already use the EE 5G network. That’s a good start, but this latest initiative focuses on bringing the service to almost 500 smaller communities. Part of this rollout also includes 5G in national parks and rural places often visited by tourists. Such improvements are vital for residents and visitors.
A fixed wireless access (FWA) network allows people to get 4G or 5G service via broadband that uses radio frequencies rather than cables. It’s a popular option for connecting homes and businesses, particularly in rural areas. Data shows high-speed internet access is available for 97% of people living in developed urban areas but only 65% of those in rural communities. Using technologies such as an FWA network could help change that.
FWA connections are also instrumental in education-based access. Such was the case with a collaboration between Nokia and AggreGateway that gave a private network to students in a rural part of California. There are 5,000 residents in the area chosen for this initiative. Moreover, this network will serve the learning needs of 2,400 students.
The associated technologies will let learners access the internet from any conventional laptop or tablet. That’s a critical point. After all, internet access is not the only thing people need to go online. They also need compatible devices. If those are too difficult to access, it’s highly likely people still can’t use the internet and would have no way to try.
Additional FWA trials are underway in three U.S. states. While there aren't many details yet, if these initiatives prove successful, more communications operators will feel motivated to ensure rural communities factor into their connectivity and expansion plans.
Furthering Research Into Rural-Area Connectivity
One challenge with connecting rural areas through wireless communications is that people cannot necessarily apply the same strategies they use in more populated areas and expect they’ll work well. Rural areas often have specific attributes — such as outdated or otherwise insufficient infrastructure — that could limit how well certain technologies perform.
That’s one of the main reasons why researchers at the University of Kansas will use a $1 million, three-year grant to study how people could improve the design of networks for rural areas. They’ll focus on the connectivity needs of agricultural and community patterns shaping how people live and work.
Taejoon Kim — who’s leading the project — pointed out how there’s a profit-centred motivation regarding many of the existing 5G initiatives. They’re often in urban, highly populated areas because those places give the biggest payoffs for the companies involved. However, that strategy also means many people miss out, worsening the digital divide.
He also discussed spatial nonuniformity, which is most common in rural areas. Populations are often distributed in uneven clusters. In contrast, urban locations typically have more even distribution. That explains why it’s easier for wireless communications companies to be more profitable by bringing their services to the most densely populated areas.
Kim also explained how many agricultural professionals now use connected machinery, which could benefit from 5G networks. However, he specified that most of the associated data and network usage comes during harvest time rather than throughout the year. That also explains why some providers have overlooked rural areas with their rollouts, but it does not excuse it.
This research will use artificial intelligence to pinpoint the key differences between building wireless communication infrastructure in rural versus urban areas. In addition to increasing 5G access, this work will support further advancements, including those related to 6G. People are getting more interested in improving wireless access to places where it needs to catch up. Such efforts even extend to the moon, where NASA hopes to bring the 4G network.
Better Wireless Communication Networks in Rural Areas Will Benefit Everyone
There’s still a long way to go in closing the connectivity gap for people in rural areas. However, making progress in this area helps everyone. Even those that don’t currently live in the countryside may eventually live or visit there. Plus, people in the world’s rural areas make important contributions to society, even if their activities are not always online-based. Better connectivity creates more opportunities, and everyone should have the chance to reap the associated advantages.