An initiative to reduce the digital divide in rural areas of Spain.
The coronavirus has tested the importance of telecommunications as a basic service. Applications that seemed to be the realm of science fiction like telehealth or tele-education have become an unquestionable reality overnight.
The networks have generally withstood the onslaught of the microscopic virus. But the essential nature that information technologies have suddenly acquired has brought to light the shortcomings of the system and has once again revealed that connectivity is a basic element of inequality that accentuates imbalances in labour or education, just to mention two of the most obvious examples during the health crisis.
At the last World Economic Forum in Davos, it was stated that millions of people in rural and low-income communities around the world lack reliable, affordable internet access.
“These people will be further denied access to the benefits of technology as more devices and systems reliant on internet connectivity emerge.” They all agree that the time has come to boost connectivity and an open, modern 5G infrastructure can help close this digital divide and guarantee the basic right of internet access.
Business interests and the EU recovery funds come together to take a deeper dive into a digitalisation that is high up on government agendas.
In this context, and under the state umbrella of the Strategic Action Economy and Digital Society (AEESD), Cellnex, Nokia and Quobis have performed a pilot test in a hamlet in rural Spain belonging to the town of San Esteban de Gormaz, with a population of just 37.
LEAN (Low-cost, Emerging countries, Architecture, Network infrastructure) is the name chosen for this proposal that was looking for an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to the difficulties in rolling out networks in rural areas.
The inhabitants of this small village have practically no network coverage. Making a simple voice call becomes an odyssey that can involve climbing a hill and travelling from one to two kilometres, which is unthinkable in the world of teleworking.
“The scenario could not be more complex – the lie of the land from the communications point of view is diabolical. It is a raised plateau with the municipality located in a small hollow and network coverage is practically zero”, explains Aitor Rubio, Senior Product Strategy Manager at Cellnex Telecom.
Taking advantage of the public-private collaboration that mitigated the main problem of technological deployment in rural areas (large investments with few users, making them unprofitable), the people in charge of the project designed a site powered by solar and wind energy that offered mobile broadband connectivity (4G and 5G) and advanced services such as the Internet of Things (IoT) or Edge Computing.
The first complication in this beautiful rural site was accessing the network. Providing the electrical connection would involve a significant investment and complex works permits and procedures, so they designed a small plant supplied mainly with solar energy, a small wind turbine to take advantage of the wind potential in the area and rechargeable batteries that would guarantee supply at all times.
“The infrastructure is energy efficient and, although it costs almost the same as a traditional installation, it is vital for sustainability and allows us to have a more appropriate cost model for the rural environment that is not dependent on the traditional electricity supply, which is the main recurring cost of these services”, explains Rubio.
The use case focused on a small recently established Ribera del Duero winery called La Loba located on the plateau of this small village which not only achieved secure access to basic communications networks but also brought in elements of IoT agriculture with sensorised real-time information for better crop control.
In addition to the design of the new facility that is sustainable in terms of costs and emissions, the experience has revealed the possibility of raising the profitability of the deployment beyond the traditional “user count”.
“Until now the deployment model was based solely on counting people. We are starting from a slightly different premise: there are a series of businesses, companies, public and private services that need to be covered and are not necessarily related to the population of a certain town or location.”
“This will be especially true following the arrival of 5G, which represents a quantum leap that will make it possible not only to connect people but also to provide connectivity to businesses and objects, to streamline processes and make them profitable.”
In fact, the experience is part of the so-called “Polygon 4.0”, which seeks to interconnect municipalities with nearby business and business areas to help justify the investment and which, in some cases, are currently abandoned due to lack of connectivity.
Overall, experience shows that the model can be exported.
“After the disaster caused by the pandemic, we have an excellent opportunity to reduce the digital divide. We at Cellnex are very well positioned to work in neutral infrastructures with solutions to bring increasing capillarity to environments and people that were cut off from a communications point of view, allowing us to strengthen this model that has changed so drastically during the pandemic. A great many people are leaving the cities and returning to the countryside and we must take advantage of this phenomenon, promoting it and fostering the recovery of many depopulated areas that are not currently requesting roads or airports, but connectivity.”