September 21, 2020

Supporting progress towards the Commissions’ 2025 Targets, with a focus on Target #3

Case Study By

Mr. Erik Ekudden

CTO and head of Group Strategy, Ericsson Group

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.

1. Connectivity is essential in the "new normal" but despite widespread network coverage, barriers to Internet usage still exist

In this era of a global pandemic and social-distancing inspired lockdowns, network connectivity has become a critical – and sometimes, the only – means of providing essential services such as  healthcare and education, and of keeping businesses running. 

In the past decades the mobile industry has made tremendous progress in providing connectivity,  and mobile broadband networks (3GPP) today cover close to 95% percent of the world population,  with this number to exceed 95% by 2025. Ericsson estimates that global 4G (LTE) population  coverage was around 80% in 3Q 2019 and is forecast to reach over 90% in 2025 (Ericsson Mobility  Report, 2020). 

However, regardless of the massive progress in network coverage, today, over 40% of the world’s  population, around 2.6 billion people, still do not use the internet. These were the findings of the  2019 World Economic Forum edition of Ericsson’s “Enabling internet for all” report, all of which is  based on Ericsson Mobility Report data. Clearly there is a big gap between those having mobile network coverage, even 4G, and those actually using the coverage for internet access.  

Whilst improving capacity and extending coverage of existing networks is a priority, it alone cannot  address the problem of digital inclusion mentioned above. Key studies from GSMA and McKinsey  highlight some of the key barriers to internet usage that are not related to network coverage. For  example, McKinsey report points out that to address the “usage gap”, there are three key  conditions. First, the internet needs to be made more relevant with localized content. Second,  services and access need to be affordable from a device ownership and data plan perspective. Lastly,  many countries need to attend to low levels of both linguistic and digital literacy in order to reduce  the Internet usage gap.  

GSMA also highlights that the key concern to close the usage gap does not relate to technical  limitations but rather economic challenges in its 2019 report. Especially from end-user perspectives  in low and middle-income countries, financial constraints, low level of literacy and digital skills, together with a lack of appreciation for connectivity, safety and security concerns are key barriers to  internet usage.  

In short, driving digital inclusion goes beyond the provision of network coverage. with relevance,  affordability and accessibility as key barriers for potential users. Addressing these is critical to reduce  the usage gap and drive digital inclusion. 

2. Broadband is central to increasing access to education and breaking down barriers to digital inclusion

Digital connectivity is the dominant force of the 21st century economy and improving access to the  Internet will drive inclusion and create broad future benefits for society. Digital connectivity can lead  to powerful outcomes across education, training, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities  not only for young generations but also for local businesses and communities. 

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the significant consequences of the lack of Internet usage in the  world hit by the pandemic. Experts predict that, with the high contagion risks, volatile time and  production capacity factors in developing and distributing a proven vaccine, COVID-19 is poised to  be a long-term catastrophe. The global shutdowns and health crisis exacerbate already challenging  realities for lower-income countries. With the under-developed infrastructure needed to facilitate  essential services and distant learning, beyond the human tragedy, the world’s most vulnerable  populations are trapped in both short-term impacts such as loss of income, poverty and long-term  impacts such as lack of education and infrastructure deterioration. Therefore, it is critical to  accelerate immediate Internet access to enable economic stimulus, online education and other  initiatives for those communities.  

For an example, as of June 15th 2020, some 1.2 billion children are out of school due to nationwide  school closures during the outbreak. As a result, education has changed dramatically, with the  distinctive rise of e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely using digital platforms.  

Schools and communities without connectivity can put education and the economy at risk. We argue that increasing broadband usage in community-based institutions, particularly focusing on schools  as the first step, can be an effective way to increase broadband usage. 

Connecting educational institutions and utilizing them as a locus for people’s learning and local  community activities has tremendous potential for enhancing the quality of digital literacy especially  in remote areas. Schools are an ideal starting point because they represent a tangible and  measurable success indicator. Particularly, as per the GIGA initiative (https://gigaconnect.org),  schools are used to identify the demand for connectivity both in schools themselves and their  surrounding communities around the world. In today’s world where digital skills are becoming  increasingly essential for both life and work, communities need to come together and support its  members, especially young people, to ensure learning happens continuously.  

Overnight, the COVID 19 crisis changed the way schools operate. As schools closed the only way for  the learning process to continue was for students and teachers to connect digitally. The definition of  educational institutions now extends well beyond the physical school walls and into the homes of  the students whom they serve. Broadband access at both school properties and private houses of  teachers and students has shown to be indispensable infrastructure in providing equal access to  education for all. However, the crisis has highlighted that access to Internet, even for educational  purposes, is not equal and that there is a great risk that the ‘usage gap’ will hinder the ability for  many children to continue their learning when they are out of school. 

Addressing these challenges, governments, civil society organizations and actors in ICT industry need  to collaborate to enable communities to access affordable mobile internet. Tackling the issue of  connectivity for schools has become a key issue within the United Nations, with agencies like ITU,  UNICEF and UNESCO combining forces through the GIGA initiative to bring about substantial change. 

3. The Way Forward

As pointed out there are many barriers to Internet usage that are not related to network  infrastructure. But despite widespread mobile network coverage, there are still improvements that  can be made to improve network capacity and reach that in turn will grow Internet usage. This study  focuses on solutions that leverage on existing network infrastructure and assets to increase internet  access.  

The objective is to support target #3 in Broadband Commission’s 2025 targets – “connecting the  other half”. 

Particularly, by 2025, broadband-Internet user penetration should reach: 

  1. 75% worldwide 
  2. 65% in developing countries 
  3. 35% in Least Developed Countries 

By 2024, mobile broadband networks will cover approximately 95% of the world’s population  (Ericsson Mobility Report, 2020). That means there will be more installed base rolled out as a result  of such network expansion. In rural areas, FWA together with institutional coverage can help us to  maximize the infrastructure to increase broadband-Internet user penetration. This target put a  special focus on developing and least developed country populations who have the widest coverage  gap mentioned in section 2.  

We also focus on solutions that provide internet access to community-based institutions, such as  schools and libraries, where teachers, students and community members can stay connected,  continue teaching and learning despite nationwide closures or local shutdowns. 

Besides, Ericsson’s proposed solution also supports target #4 – by 2025, 60% of youth and adults  should have achieved at least a minimum level of proficiency in sustainable digital skills. Internet  access, its benefits and digital skills together produce a virtuous circle – people need digital literacy  to access, use and benefit from internet access; which subsequently drive demand for higher  internet penetration. In order to fully support target #4, cross-sector collaboration is required to  bring not only connectivity but also digital content available in local vernacular. 

4. Proposed Solution

 i. Deploy Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) using 4G/5G 

To close the usage gap, we advocate the deployment of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) that leverages  on existing network infrastructure and assets for community-based institutional coverage.  

In this case study we define FWA as a connection based on IMT/3GPP technologies that provide  broadband access through a mobile network enabled customer premises equipment (CPE). This includes various form factors of CPEs, such as indoor (desktop and window) and outdoor (rooftop  and wall mounted). It does not include portable battery-based Wi-Fi routers or dongles.  

Fixed wireless access (FWA) connections are forecast to grow threefold and reach close to 160  million by the end of 2025, accounting for 25% of total mobile network data traffic globally (Ericsson  Mobility Report 2020) .  

There are three main factors that drive the FWA market and the uptake of connections.  

First, demand from consumers and businesses for digital services continues, driving the need for  broadband connectivity. The rollout of FWA maps to this need and supports operator’s revenue  growth goals of expanding in new markets.  

Second, FWA delivered over 4G or 5G is an increasingly cost-efficient broadband alternative in areas  with limited availability of fixed services such as DSL, cable or fiber. Increasing capacity – allowed by  greater spectrum allocations and technology advancements for 4G and 5G networks – is driving  higher network efficiency in terms of the cost per delivered gigabyte. Because it is based on  standardized technologies it has tremendous benefits of scale for the users. The technologies are  anchored in global standards, they come with the economic and social benefits of scale – from  lowered cost of coverage for the marginalized in low-population density areas and cheaper devices  to roaming and interoperability to long-term investment assurance for manufacturers, network  operators and others in the ecosystem.  

Third, governments are fueling broadband connectivity through programs and subsidies, as it is  considered vital for digitalization efforts and economic growth. Examples include the Federal  Communications Commission’s Rural Development Opportunity Fund in the US and Australia’s  National Broadband Network (NBN). 

ii. Invest in a FWA network that utilizes existing radio network and spectrum assets 

An existing mobile radio network, normally designed for voice and mobile broadband, is an excellent  base for offering an FWA service. By taking advantage of existing network infrastructure and assets  which serve 92% of the world population, broadband connectivity can be provided in an economical  and practical way. This is key success factor for a higher capacity and large-scale offering using FWA.  The fact that no new site, tower, excavation nor construction works are required, this solution is  much less resource intensive compared to fiber builds. 

A key re-usable asset is spectrum that has been already acquired in auctions but is still generally  undeployed in suburban and rural areas. The geographical fit for FWA is excellent, since FWA  targeted areas are often suburban and rural, where unused spectrum is most prevalent. Utilizing  undeployed bands and adding radios for them is a natural next step to cater for FWA, if utilizing  previously deployed bands is not sufficient to meet FWA ambitions. 

Depending on the radio network starting point and the operator’s ambitions for FWA, there are  choices available to make the network capable of handling a combination of voice, mobile  broadband and FWA in combination. 

These choices can be summarized as utilize the existing radio network assets, add radio network  capabilities, and densify the radio network grid. A well-planned mix of these choices should be  deployed to meet the particular needs of each local situation. For further information we refer to  the Ericsson Fixed Wireless Handbook.  

iii. Focus on connecting community-based institutions 

Leveraging existing assets can be a cost-effective roadmap to enable institutional coverage  facilitated FWA. By institutional coverage, we refer to facilities like schools, libraries, community  centers etc. which serve their local communities. Taking schools as an example, we see that the  boundary of a school goes beyond its physical boundaries and extends into surrounding buildings.  Therefore, with all the above reasons, the growing FWA ecosystem can benefit rural areas 

Passive infrastructures such as sites, towers, electricity, etc. which is largest component of network  deployment cost, is already available at institutional common places. This supports upgrading to  4G/5G and extending coverage with less demanding deployment. By leveraging the existing  network assets and infrastructure not only can schools be connected but improved connectivity  can be shared with the surrounding homes and communities. For example, network capacity that  is used during the school day can be re-purposed during the evenings for home use when schools  are closed. 

iv. Case Study Example: Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) rolling out fixed wireless  services in remote and regional areas with Ericsson  

Together with Australian NBN, we launched bitstream ethernet services in 2015 covering more than  580 000 premises in regional and remote areas where fixed line technologies are economically  challenging. Previously, poor internet coverage has impacted Australian remote communities. Some  refer to it as “data drought” which limited their access to information and opportunities to learning,  developing and managing their businesses. 

The solution is to optimize LTE for fixed wireless delivering broadband directly to businesses and  homes as part of NBN’s Multi-technology Mix (MTM) strategy.  

In this case, affordable and high-performance broadband services to less densely populated areas  have closed the digital division between rural and urban. Communities benefit from better speeds,  higher data allowances and better values and can enjoy connectivity and access to opportunities  across education, business and entertainment.  

As a result, Australian NBN and Ericsson’s fixed wireless footprint covers more than 270,000 homes  and 47,000 community-based premises.

5. Summary and Recommendations

In summary, neither spectrum nor technology are barriers to broadband internet access. The key  challenge is are primarily anchored in socio-economic. Proven broadband technology and solutions  connecting rural areas need to scale with sustainable business models. Increasing demands for  digital services, cost-efficient broadband alternatives delivering higher network efficiency and  subsidies from governments fueling broadband connectivity are key factors for FWA to connect  communities from remote areas in the upcoming years.  

 

We recommend regulators and policymakers to back increased coverage for institutions like schools  by supporting requirements of coverage when licensing spectrum, financial support for rural sites  that cover schools, and regulative support with e.g. site permits. This set up not only utilize the  underutilized infrastructure but also under deployed spectrums in rural areas.

 

One additional recommendation is to rewrite Universal Service Funds mandates to prioritize  broadband services, whereby technologies like FWA can also enable voice services using VOLTE or IP  telephony solutions.

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.