While most of the Latin American population has access to 2G mobile networks, more than half of the rural population lacks access to mobile broadband networks. For example, Brazil still has a digital divide between urban 65% and rural areas with 34% of internet penetration [1]. For operators, this represents a challenge on how to deploy broadband connectivity to rural and remote regions. Network sharing might be a possible approach for building sustainable 5G network operations in remote regions, as 5G network deployments are expected to be more expensive due to a higher site density [1]. As mobile network operators share their network infrastructure, they can enjoy larger network reach and savings in capital and operating expenditures.


The mobile industry in Latin America has risen to the challenge of sustaining social and economic activity in the region during the pandemic. The industries of e-commerce [2], entertainment [3], online education [4], food delivery [5], and fin-tech [3] have grown considerably. According to the GSM Association (GSMA),on average, operators reported a 25% increase in mobile data traffic during lockdown [3].


Spectrum and regulatory environment

Currently, 5G spectrum auctions are taking place in multiple Latin American countries. Auctioned spectrum licences tend to involve strict obligations for increasing population coverage as part of the countries’ digitalisation strategies. Thus, participants of spectrum auctions must plan ahead with regard to required coverage while maintaining scalable and sustainable business models.


For example, auctioned spectrum licences in Chile require the winning operators to satisfy strict coverage conditions, such as a 90%population coverage in three years and coverage for public infrastructure, such as hospitals, airports and administrative centres [6]. In Brazil, regulation requires strict national quality and service levels, which are model for urban areas[1]. This kind of national-level coverage expectations might lead to challenges if the regulation does not allow any differentiation between implementations in urban and rural areas. Rural areas might benefit from more innovative approaches for coverage like network sharing, while these cost-effective or unfamiliar solutions might not fully comply with the regulation.


These additional regulatory requirements and rising spectrum prices might also diminish the attractiveness for investments into rural connectivity. The higher the spectrum prices, the more negative impact there is on consumers through a more expensive and lower quality mobile internet experience. Strict coverage requirements might seem unfeasible for operators, as rural areas present network deployment with unique ramifications, such as higher investments per covered household, larger operational complexities and costs, and more uncertain revenue estimates [1].

Operational and maintenance complexities

In rural and remote areas, a lack of existing infrastructure and wide operating areas present challenges for deploying coverage. These factor into higher operation and maintenance costs, as the complexity of planning and maintaining operations grows with the difficulty of reaching and servicing a network site. For example, rural regions have differing energy supply levels, which might result in power outages [1]. This leads to the situation where operators must build and strengthen the local electric grid or provide alternative energy sources locally. On the other hand, rural road infrastructure or the lack of thereof leads to expensive site visits, as time spent on the road increases and potential hold ups, such as vehicles getting stuck in mud, become more likely [1].


Current data from rural regions might not be accurate either, as census counts and other analyses might not be valid or might contain old data [1]. Inaccurate data makes calculations and predictions more precarious, and this might lead into uncertainty and higher costs. For example, it is an enormous effort for authorities to do recounting and locating their populations in rural regions, and thus, the large interval between censuses might cause a lack of insight into population dynamics in these areas[1]. Rapid migration from rural areas to urban areas might concentrate in specific towns. These towns on paper might only have hundreds of inhabitants, whereas in reality they have grown in size to the tens of thousands, which would make them far more attractive for new network deployment.



Opportunities for mobile network operators

There is ample opportunity in bridging the digital divide between urban and rural areas. 5G allows more remote industries, such as agribusiness, logistics, mining, and environment monitoring, to utilise the Internet of Things (IoT) and faster connectivity for their benefit. The mobile network operators (MNOs), who can tackle the difficulties of deploying and maintaining cost-effective, sustainable network operations, will have competitive advantages in the race to increase population coverage. There is also an opportunity for smaller, more local rural mobile infrastructure operators (RMIO) to specialise in operating in remote areas and provide access via their network to larger MNOs [1].


Network sharing benefits all parties. For example, RMIOs can focus on building cost-effective infrastructure in sites with low competition. MNOs can then rent access to the remote access networks that the RMIOs operate. Thus, MNOs can capitalise on their licenced spectrum in previously underserved areas, while focusing their capital expenditure in high-value urban areas where they already operate. While network sharing incurs upfront costs and effort in integrating networks, with proper planning and cooperation, the long-term benefits and profits outweigh the challenges. [1]


Omnitele has assisted many MNOs to achieve these numbers by designing high quality shared and consolidated MOCN (shared RAN and with pooled spectrum) and MORAN(shared RAN but with separate spectrum) networks. Design criteria have included coverage improvement, combined customer base capacity prediction, and reduction of sites. Omnitele can assist in deciding on the most suitable one, as well as on a good governance model that is required in order to have a successful sharing agreement and ensuing shared network operations.



[1]Cavalcante, A.M., Marquezini, M.V., Mendes, L., Moreno, C.S. 2021. 5G forRemote Areas: Challenges, Opportunities and Business Modeling for Brazil. IEEE Access, 9, pp.10829-10843. doi: 10.1109/ACCESS.2021.3050742.


[2]Chevalier, J. 2021. Change in e-commerce revenue during the COVID-19 out breakin selected countries in Latin America in April 2020. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1116604/change-e-commerce-revenue-coronavirus-latin-america/


[3]Pimentel, J.P. 2020. Coursera grew six times faster helped by its swift response initiatives to Covid-19. LABS. https://labsnews.com/en/articles/technology/coursera-latin-america-response-covid/


[4] Mello, G. 2020. Coronavirus outbreak boosts delivery apps across Latin America.Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-rappi/coronavirus-outbreak-boosts-delivery-apps-across-latin-america-idUSKBN2143RO


[5] GSMA.2020. The Mobile Economy Latin America 2020. https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/GSMA_MobileEconomy2020_LATAM_Eng.pdf


[6] 5G Observatory. 2021. Chile completes first 5G spectrum auction in Latin America. https://5gobservatory.eu/chile-completes-first-5g-spectrum-auction-in-latin-america/

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