Imagine rolling hills, emerald green pastures, and the reassuring rhythm of rural life. Angus County, nestled on the white sandy shores of Scotland’s East coast, has it all, including a picturesque landscape peppered with ancient castles and old abbeys plucked from the pages of Shakespeare's Macbeth. While Angus County may seem like an ideal holiday getaway or film location for a romantic comedy where a big-city pastry chef falls in love with a small-town ranch hand, the reality for residents is a bit more complicated.
Beneath this perfectly painted old-world backdrop is a rural region grappling with a massive modern challenge - the digital divide.
It’s undeniably true that Angus County has a certain simplicity and tranquility that urban dwellers often crave. Unfortunately, that cozy, calm rural remoteness comes with a cold, hard connectivity cost. In an increasingly digital world, the lack of high-speed, low-latency connectivity has become an untenable challenge for Angus residents and local businesses.
The implications of this digital divide are far-reaching. For students, limited access to real-time online resources hampers their educational opportunities and growth, restricting their ability to engage in interactive learning and limiting their access to the latest tools and resources. Similarly, for business owners and entrepreneurs, sluggish, unreliable internet speeds stifle productivity and innovation, curbing their competitiveness in the international digital marketplace.
Communities like Angus have survived centuries of hardships by banding together, cooperating, and innovating. When it came to tackling their digital divide challenges, these same tried-and-tested tools proved invaluable for Angus. In the end, a surprisingly simple and ingenious solution for reducing infrastructure costs and speeding up deployment of the community’s new high-capacity low-latency network was found in the most unlikely places.
The Dollars and Cents of the Digital Divide
Before we get to the solution, it’s worth taking a closer look at the cause of the digital divide dilemma. Understanding the digital divide from a business perspective requires an exploration of the underlying economics. The cost-to-profit ratio plays a critical role in determining whether it's financially viable for communications service providers (CSP) and internet service providers (ISPs) to invest in rural areas.
Put simply, if your brother-in-law came to you with a “great business opportunity” to partner up on a fancy ice cream franchise located in a tiny town of ten people who all happened to be lactose intolerant, you’d likely have some justifiable hesitation.
Rural communities, by definition, are typically far from city centers and network backbones. Connecting them to the network requires expensive fiber optic cables to be laid or wireless backhaul links to be designed and deployed. Connectivity and service providers naturally look at the cost of that infrastructure expenditure and measure it against the projected revenue that can be generated by the potential customer base that lives in the rural region.
Like with our brothers-in-law’s ice cream example, if it costs $1M for the franchise rights and $200K to build the store, plus $15K monthly operating costs, we will need to sell far more ice cream than the 10 residents of the town are ever going to purchase.
In regions like Angus County, the sparse population of approx. 116,000 spread across the vast geographical area of nearly 2200 km² creates a business equation that just doesn’t add up. The number of residential and commercial customers would likely be insufficient to justify the high infrastructure Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operational Expenditure (OPEX). The only alternative up until recently was for local communities to pay their own way and foot the bill for infrastructure and operation. As you might expect, CAPEX and OPEX place connectivity far beyond the reach of almost all communities trapped on the far side of the digital divide.
When Governments Get Involved
According to a study titled "The Digital Divide: A Research Perspective," the digital divide is often dictated by the gap between those who can afford technology and those who cannot. This disparity extends to businesses, with smaller enterprises in rural areas struggling to access digital advantages due to inadequate infrastructure.
In fact, a report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States reveals that it could cost as much as $80 billion to bring broadband infrastructure to all underserviced rural areas in the country. With such high costs, the return on investment for ISPs remains unlikely, given the limited customer base in these areas.
Recognizing this challenge, several international government funds and agencies have stepped up to subsidize solving the digital divide. For instance, the European Union has established the Broadband Fund, with a budget of €3.5 billion for the period of 2021-2027, aimed at supporting broadband network infrastructure at a national, regional, or local level.
Similarly, in the US, the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has committed to allocating $20.4 billion over ten years to support high-speed broadband networks in rural America. In Australia, the government has launched the Regional Connectivity Program, investing AUD 90 million to improve digital connectivity in regional and remote areas.
These initiatives underscore the importance of bridging the digital divide and highlight the role of collective efforts in overcoming financial hurdles.
Communities Cooperating to Connect
If you’re looking for high-capacity, low-latency network transport and you don’t have the time or massive budget required to get permits, dig trenches, and lay kilometers of fiber cables, then a wireless solution is your best bet. Angus Council leaders turned to local Wireless Network experts Rapier Systems to see if they might have an affordable solution that could be deployed quickly and deliver the rural broadband capacity and reliability they needed without the cost and complexity of fiber.
With decades of experience in the wireless business, the folks at Rapier Systems immediately knew that Ceragon’s mix of industry-leading wireless transport link hardware, software, and professional services would be the perfect solution for the council’s rural connectivity problems.
The next challenge was to address the cost of building 20+ point-to-point cell site links in remote areas, each needing a tower or ‘high-point’. Luckily, the team had a brilliant cost-cutting solution built on community cooperation.
Leveraging Existing Infrastructure
After assessing the topology of the region, mapping out the required number of cell sites, and then overlaying local barns, silos, and masts, a plan was proposed to use existing ‘high points’ located on various private farms and businesses. The council would rent the space from cooperative community members and ask Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to compensate the council financially for using the infrastructure.
Ceragon’s wireless backhaul technology made it possible to have the new network up and operational in a fraction of the time and cost it would have taken to dig and lay fiber. Ceragon’s powerful E-band radios with up to 10Gbps capacity provided the wireless connectivity required to span the multi-kilometer distance between the 22 rural cell sites back to a junction that connects to the national network.
In addition to hardware and software, a multi-year network management and maintenance package was included in the arrangement, giving the council, residents, and business owners everything they needed for their high-capacity future-friendly network. In the end, community cooperation, resourceful problem solving, and Ceragon’s wireless E-band connectivity bridged another digital divide.
“Working with Ceragon for many years, our team has come to really appreciate the robustness, performance, and supreme reliability. We can absolutely attest to what Ceragon has achieved and continues to bring in terms of innovation, and that is why our relationship is now approaching 20 years!”
~ Richard Watson | Managing Director at Rapier Systems Ltd.”
Interested in learning more about Ceragon’s rural digital divide solutions?