Public-private partnership and sharing, key for connecting rural areas
Cellnex explores alternatives for white and grey zones in Europe
Connectivity is a key element for revitalising rural communities and fulfilling the dream of ‘creating a greener, more digital and more resilient Europe’, the main rationale underlying the largest stimulus package in history promoted by the European Union, the Next Generation funds.
No one doubts that widespread access to affordable broadband has been and will remain one of the main factors guaranteeing an informed, change-prepared and knowledge-based society. But the imbalances caused by the pandemic have shown that telecommunications is an indispensable element in terms not only of equality, but also of equity. Or, to put it another way, poor telecommunications tends to lead to exclusion. Health, educational, social or even economic exclusion that stands in the way of the development of more sustainable rural areas and causes an exodus of population to large cities.
Although Europe has the highest Internet penetration in the world, access to the Internet in many small villages is still non-existent (white areas) or poor (grey areas). And that is where the objectives of Cellnex tie in with those of the main national, provincial and local governments of the countries in which it operates: to ensure connectivity as a basic service and justice to promote territorial cohesion and stem rural flight.
“While road infrastructure was the main driver of territorial integration and wealth in the twentieth century, today telecommunications infrastructure is a priority issue for equality and development”, explains Agustí Faus Roca, global head of Telecommunications Infrastructure Services (TIS) at Cellnex in an interview.
In the framework of Next Generation grants, European governments are working on various initiatives to boost connectivity in rural areas. According to Eurostat data, there are still differences in access to broadband technologies in the EU-27 Ten per cent of rural areas have no access to any coverage and 41% have a bandwidth of only 30 Mb.
A complex challenge requiring cooperation
“Covering the population (in the countries we serve, about 70% of the population is covered by living near large cities) does not solve the problem of coverage in areas with difficult terrain or poor access to electricity, and raises a major issue of profitability owing to population distortion. There are too few customers to enable mobile operators to recover the investment of the expenditure involved in deploying infrastructure“, explains the telecommunications engineer, who worked for several years in a major European telecommunications company.
Although they agree on the problem and on the need for public intervention to solve this kind of “market failure”, the various European countries are applying or studying different models to solve the problem. In Cellnex’s opinion, it requires public-private collaboration and the involvement of a neutral operator that can channel the presence of multiple operators.
Mobile operators, which are very capital-intensive in order to finance their growth, analyse their deployment in a cost-effective manner and are increasingly resorting to the transfer or sale of their infrastructures. The transfer to a neutral operator offloads operating and maintenance costs and facilitates sharing in a solution that can foster the arrival of other operators and services. In a recent report on fibre deployment in Europe, consultancy Oliver Wayman predicts that telecomms operators will make even greater use of outsourcing of network maintenance and operation in a market estimated at €8 billion.
“Operators are competing with each other, and costs, permits and access complicate the process in rural areas. In our opinion, we need someone to orchestrate and facilitate the process, and a neutral operator has the capacity and experience to do so, and be the driving force behind a more efficient, more consensual and ultimately more realistic and scalable solution.”
Cellnex has already demonstrated that infrastructure can be deployed and communication problems solved in rural areas with scalable, low-cost and even low-emission solutions. But they often require institutional support and backing from operators.
Aligned with the European Digital Agenda, Cellnex has long been working on the LEAN project (Low-cost, Emerging countries, Architecture, Network infrastructure) whose main objective is to provide broadband service in areas where the deployment and operation of standard infrastructure is not economically viable.
Under the umbrella of this project, the group tested an economically and environmentally sustainable solution in the Soria steppe to facilitate the connection of a winery and a small rural area. A solar- and wind-powered installation with battery backup allows broadband to be provided with fixed wireless access (FWA) technology.
“This is a low-cost, self-supplied deployment model that solves part of the problem, but needs concerted action to attract operators and to be able to provide the service.”
Precisely in the context of this desire for cooperation between the parties, in Ireland Cellnex has set up the “Get connected” initiative, a kind of “community platform” in which it acts as a link to identify areas with connectivity problems and mobilise the various stakeholders with the aim of enhancing connectivity and rural development.
“We encourage localities with connectivity difficulties to demand the service and bring it to the attention of the authorities, which then mediate with the operators to facilitate the creation of a shared site that we install to host the mobile operators.”
The facilities are low-cost and are being mounted on unobtrusive poles that can even be used for streetlamps so as not to spoil the landscape.
“Once we have installed the pole, other operators can be added to the infrastructure without their having to invest additional capital,” explains Agustí, who believes that “ruralisation” projects will be developed throughout Europe over the next three years.
Furthermore, the roll-out of new telecommunications in the transport networks in which Cellnex has a presence –along railways, roads or in the field of autonomous vehicles– can also create synergies and provide universal coverage by bringing the necessary infrastructure to sparsely populated areas.
Journalist and Founder of Newsbub