The GSMA recently reported that a multi-party group of UK
politicians was pressuring regulator Ofcom to “assure consumers and rural
people that improvements are being made to 4G availability”. If rural coverage
is considered an issue in one of the world’s most advanced telecom markets,
what is the situation in Latin America?
Well, I gotta tell the story before it’s time to go
The article mentions a number of All-Party Parliamentary
Group on Rural Business concerns, centered around the facts that rural coverage
and network performance is poorer than urban, despite the obvious economic
benefits of better broadband for non-urban communities.
“Ofcom has acknowledged across several reports and especially
in its guidance to government that mobile operators are reluctant to build
masts in rural areas due to significant costs,” the GSMA quoted from the
Which is the ‘bottom-line’. Everyone, even the operators,
would love to have perfect rural coverage in 4G (or even 3G). The people who
run operators are (with some exceptions) believe in what they are doing; they
believe that better communications serves mankind.
They understand that better broadband has a multiplier
effect on economic growth and development. Furthermore, this multiplier is even
greater the further down the economic ladder one is. There is always a gradient
in economic variables like average income between urban and rural areas (except
perhaps for gated communities but we are not talking about them and they are
hardly ‘the country’). The steeper the gradient between two areas, the greater
the impact of adding telecom infrastructure to the less favored region[i].
But ‘the country’ we are supposed to be getting ready for is
a whole lot of empty space with a small number of people, not even a lot
animals (my comments last week about connected sheep in the Falklands /
Malvinas not withstanding). The city of Bogotá (where I live) has a population
density of 4,310
people per square kilometer. The population density of Colombia as a whole
people per square kilometer. You do the math for the density of the rest of
the country, even including other major cities.
For the largely rural Colombian state of Casanare, which has
a city (Yopal) and is important for both agriculture and oil production, the
density is 7.7 people per square kilometer, 1/6th of the national
average. Excluding Yopal, the density is 5.4 people per square kilometer or
slightly more one standard Colombian family per km2. A square kilometer
is the area served by a base station with an effective radius of 560 meters.
For 2G and even 3G, the economics made sense for rural
coverage, especially as consumers started to discover the benefits of
communications – voice, text, Twitter, Facebook! But 3G is now no longer
considered ‘broadband’ (those instant-start cat videos in Facebook are painful)
and the ‘broadband experience’ in 4G degrades the further away you are from a
tower. At least in the unbroken prairie of Casanare, line-of-sight will not be
an issue, but if we assume ‘decent’ broadband service within a kilometer of the
tower, that would only mean about 4 or 5 households as potential customers for
a fixed wireless service.
Now let’s introduce the topic of multiple operators with
multiple base stations competing for those 4 or 5 households.
This is Casanare, Colombia but I could have constructed
similar arguments for regions of any country in the hemisphere, including
Canada and the United States.
(If anyone from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural
Business happens to stumble across this blog, the population density of
Casanare is about that of the Scottish Highlands – but fortunately for radio
propagation, a lot flatter.)
Faced with the impossibility of this equation, governments
adjust rural broadband objectives in Latin American countries to more
achievable goals, like coverage in the urban center of the state capitals. You
can get voice and text at home, but to get decent Internet performance you have
to go into town.
we are not ‘ready for the country’ but I think there are some changes to the
paradigm that would help.
The first is making broadband the equivalent of a ‘Sustainable
Development Goal’ for middle-income countries like Colombia. If we treat
this like ‘running water’ or ‘electricity’, we will come up with more creative
solutions than we have today.
Public investment will almost certainly be required although
if I would prefer that private companies run things. Despite the romantic
attachment of some politicians to a past public service paradise that never
existed, private companies will do a better job of building and operating even
though they will not, rationally, invest much or any of their own money in
rural broadband in the first place.
My other suggestion is that operators abandon their visceral
rejection of shared networks. If the government is going to contribute or even
pay for the investment, it should only pay once. Mexico’s ‘Red Compartida’ is
the right idea but somehow we have to get over major operators’ reluctance to
use these solutions.
Well, I gotta tell the story; I don’t know the reason why
Title reference: Continuing
to riff off CSN&Y
for some no-doubt deep psychological reason, Are you ready for the country? is a
1972 Neil Young song from the Harvest album. Harvest would top the
charts for two weeks and become the year’s best-selling album but Are
you ready for the country? was never released as a single. Waylon Jennings
took it to number 7 on the Country charts in the US (number 3 in Canada) in
1976. Hank Williams Jr released a version in 2015 that only got to number 46 in
the US. (The song refers to his more famous father, at least more famous outside
of Monday Night Football fans.) The song is not one of Young’s more profound investigations
of the human spirit but the title phrase (repeated nearly 20 times throughout
the lyrics) is obviously relevant.
Are You Ready For The Country lyrics by Neil Young © Silver
rather obvious question is what proof have I got of that assertion? Frankly, I have
none. A telecom consulting company I used to work for once bid on a project to
prove this for a major multinational operator. We lost the bid, probably
because my undergraduate minor in economics was not considered to be as
relevant as the PhDs that specialist economic-analysis firms promised would
work on the project if they won. I later saw a copy of the final report (public
version) and it was the same qualitative handwaving as always about the Brave
New World! of telecommunications. I do not need a PhD to do that. My argument
is purely mathematical so those without such interest can jump back to the main
text. If we accept that the curve relating communications infrastructure to
economic wealth is upward-sloping (more investment is better) then, adding the
same amount of ‘stuff’ to a place where there is little today – like a rural
community – has to have a larger proportional impact than adding it to a place
where there is already a lot – like an urban area. Questions about elasticity
or the proportional impact of a proportional change depend on the shape of the
curve but I’ve already bored some of you into jumping to the latest gossip out
of Real Madrid, not even going back to the main text, so I will stop. For those
who soldier on, assuming the curve shows diminishing returns to scale (like
most investment/output curves) then the elasticity is (by definition) higher
where there is little investment today than in areas where there is already a
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