Connecting the rural unconnected to bridge the digital divide

How one company has proven the business model for the deployment of rural coverage solutions

Read this article to learn:

  • How Parallel Wireless are innovating to drive TCO and opex lower
  • How the MNOs are dictating the way the supply chain operate
  • The potential to roll out networks using the neutral host model
  • Which regions of the world are most likely to adopt spectrum sharing agreements
  • How the rural market is becoming addressable through technological and business model innovation

The Future Network spoke to Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President of Parallel Wireless, the distinctly different company working to connect the rural unconnected, lower the TCO of small cell networks, and retain the humanity of telecom infrastructure deployment. They have made the rural market their target and have successfully formed MNO partnerships around the world to try to bridge the digital divide.

The Future Network: Please introduce yourself and your company.

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

I grew up in India and have worked in the telecoms industry for over 25 years. My goal in setting up Parallel Wireless was to create an open company, and to try to extend that openness into the telecom sector more widely. We identified the need for easy to deploy, resilient and cost effective network architectures that would overcome many of the legacy technical challenges associated with wireless communication.

My experience has taught me that the inherent complexity within the telecoms market needs to be simplified, and that operators will be unable to bring cost effective coverage to the populations they serve without simplifying the processes they use. I firmly believe that the market needs to use commoditised components, virtualisation and automated network parameters in order to keep costs acceptable.

Parallel Wireless is a very ambitious start up, we’re about five years old and our mission is to make cellular services as cost effective and easy to deploy as Wi-Fi networks. Our passion is to innovate with a purpose and to connect the unconnected. There are over four billion people in the world that are unconnected, and the reason for this is that connecting them is (to date) cost prohibitive. Even if we were to provide free base stations and equipment, it would still require permitting for tower construction, tower build costs, which are currently between USD 60,000 – USD 200,000 because of all the associated equipment e.g. fibre, cabinets, installation costs.

Fundamentally, unless you reduce the costs, you can’t improve the coverage, so that is what we have made our primary objective over the last five years. We have deployed networks in rural areas in the UK, APAC, Australia, Latin America, and now in Africa.

The Future Network: Parallel Wireless have a number of network densification technologies available to the market currently, could you please give us a high level overview of these products and the services you offer?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

We use our innovation to bring the form factors down. We shrink the sites and the equipment to enable densification, so that you can deploy cellular networks in towns and in rural areas, but you don’t need a tower to provide coverage. Realistically if you need to densify cellular networks in big cities, you can’t use towers, so we have some deployments in APAC where we put our base stations on rooftops. The other point we should make about reducing the form factors is that it reduces the power consumption, which further helps to lower the inherent costs and contribute to opex savings. Our products can run on less power than a laptop on full central processing unit (CPU).

The Future Network: How are you working with MNOs and other network deployers currently? Have you noticed a change in focus or appetite from them recently?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

We are working with over 30 MNOs and MNO groups, (tier one, two and three). Everyone’s concerns are with revenue generation, and this can only be done by delivering new coverage. This new coverage will come from reaching underserved areas, but in order to do so, the costs need to come down. Everyone wants data. Rural end users are not second class citizens, they still want access to Facebook, and to be able to research their holidays.

The main challenge faced by the operators is increasingly in saving on opex. With capex, they can get free equipment and base stations, and in some cases loans from larger vendors, but no one is going to help them with their opex. Even if you virtualised all the gateway functionalities, you would still need the operations team managed, so one of our roles is to make the job of the operations team easier. We have created a software product called HetNet Gateway (HNG) which absorbs some of the functionalities and makes the operations so much simpler because instead of managing, for example, twenty five gateways the operations team only has to manage one. The HetNet Gateway has been designed to facilitate the management, configuration and optimisation of the distributed cellular network.

The Future Network: Are you working with towercos or other neutral hosts to deploy distributed networks?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

The unique capability of the HetNet Gateway solution is that is can provide information on traffic and subscriber activity and enable RANsharing, and routing to multiple core networks, which is great for tower companies because it enables infrastructure sharing, and therefore opex savings. In addition, through our Converged Wireless Wystem (CWS), which is the base station, the towercos could serve multiple carriers on the same platform, and the HetNet Gateway is the secret sauce which will route the traffic to the appropriate core network.

HetNet Gateway can be deployed on site, so it can be closer to the edge for mobile edge computing purposes, or it can be deployed in the data centre. It also helps with spectrum scheduling by managing the spectrum dynamically, allocating the appropriate amount of spectrum to each subscriber. We are not currently actively working with the tower companies, but they are welcome in the Parallel Wireless network.

The Future Network: You mentioned the capability of the HetNet Gateway to allocate spectrum, how have the MNOs taken this? Has it made them more inclined to share spectrum, knowing that it can be allocated on a pro-rata basis?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

We have seen it mostly in developing and emerging markets. In these markets there are some operators who want to offer this service to other operators which is driving interest, and it works in regions where average revenue per user (ARPU) is low, and then it will trickle down to regions where ARPU (and regulation) is high.

The Future Network: Could you please talk us through the value chain from your point of view? Where do you sit, and how do you engage with the value chain as a whole?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

To us, the value lies in solving the supply chain’s challenges. We use commodity components to lower their costs, we simplify their deployment and maintenance, but the main value comes overall from helping to solve their challenges.

We’ve been very lucky in that our partnership with EE three years ago put us on the map, and we’ve been working with latent operator groups to help them bring coverage to the underserved since then. We’ve announced Telefonica, Optus and most recently Ice Wireless in Canada, and we have multiple deployments going on all over the world.

We will be adding another G to our offering, so we will be 2G, 3G and 4G capable which is aimed at the African and Indian markets. The costs need to be affordable to suit the GDP and end user requirements. What is unique about our solution is that it can be upgradable to any technology, an operator could start with 2G por 3G and then upgrade when they are ready, or they can regress, so if they start with 4G but they need 3G for voice, we can accommodate that, it all comes as one package. We started as a 4G company, but EE needed 3G capabilities in their solution, so we incorporated that into our offering, and we see it as taking a step backwards to be able to take a leap forwards for our customers. With regards to 5G, we have 5G architecture through the HetNet Gateway solution, because HetNet Gateway is 5G ready today – it can do network slicing  across any G, it can route traffic, it can reduce latency when it’s close to the cell edge. When people talk about 5G, they talk about mmWave spectrum, but the operators consider 5G spectrum being all spectrum, not just mmWave. We have a whole of market solution, wherever the operator needs to provide coverage, we can help.

With regards to the lower end of the supply chain, we have a couple of partnerships e.g Cisco who we are working with on Ice Wireless and others yet to be announced. We welcome an open ecosystem, and will also work with system integrators and installation companies, because they have approved vendors to install and operate. Our equipment is designed to be very simple to install, so it lends itself to both sides of the value chain.

With regards to the components that go into our equipment, we buy commoditised, off the shelf products from manufacturers and then integrate them into our equipment, and the innovation comes from our design. This helps to keep costs down, because, for example, there are very few companies that innovate in silicone because the capital requirements and barriers to entry are so high, and even the larger vendors cannot invest in developing their own silicone anymore. So our hardware, we buy in and assemble and distribute, but our software offering we develop in house. The beauty of the software is that it can be installed on any chip and on any type of server – it just depends on what the customer requirements are. Ultimately, the supply chain needs to benefit the end customer.

The Future Network: Are there any recent projects that you are particularly proud of and that you are able to talk us through?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

Any deployment that helps a single person to access cellular coverage is a successful one. We have various projects around the world, but of particular note are the partnerships we have undertaken with Optus, Telefonica, EE and Ice Wireless. In APAC, the Optus project in Australia which uses multiple sites, and covers key highways and the coast to connected the unconnected. Optus has boosted its investment in regional mobile coverage, with the installation of nine satellite small cells along almost 2,000km of highway across Western Australia. We work with Optus and the satellite company, to provide the mobile related equipment and technology for the rollout, such as small cells and mobile network gateways. In one of the first towns that we covered with Optus, tourists couldn’t even dial for the emergency services, now there are satellite small cell services in some very remote and previously unconnected regions.

We are also working with Telefonica in LatAm on a project where the end users were able to connect right away, as we were installing the network. There is no fixed infrastructure in this particular country, so the only way they can access the internet is through the mobile network. The project began in July and is ongoing, and details have yet to be made public, but I can disclose that the agreement with the MNO will allow for trials of Parallel Wireless virtualised RAN (vRAN) solution to provide digital services in dense urban and remote areas in European and Latin American markets. We will enable low cost coverage allowing efficient spectrum management, and these services will leverage the unique capabilities of Parallel Wireless vRAN with ease of install, backhaul flexibility including resilient wireless mesh and real-time network orchestration.

We also are still working with EE in the UK. We first introduced a 4G only solution in 2014 for EE to provide wireless connectivity in rural UK communities, the now multi-mode 3G/4G solution is deployed globally: on land, in the air, and on water to connect the unconnected at much lower deployment cost and on an accelerated timeline. We joined forces to deliver award-winning innovation by connecting the previously unconnected in Great Britain. Our 4G wireless broadband service utilises Parallel Wireless micro network technology to enable EE to deliver reliable 4G LTE coverage across the UK. It uses virtualization principles to deliver consistent, superior LTE performance while changing the economics of cellular rollouts.

In Canada we have partnered with Ice Wireless to provide high-speed cellular connectivity in the harsh regions of the Arctic, which was a difficult endeavour. Backhaul costs tend to be very expensive and deployment cycles can drag on as work is often limited to the few weeks of the year when temperatures are warmer. Recognising this, an innovative approach was needed to be able to bridge the digital divide. Many residents and businesses in Northern Canada still only have access to a fraction of the services that are available in Southern Canada (and at nearly double the cost). The lack of coverage in these regions affects everyone and everything from local businesses, to healthcare, to education. Working in tandem with the MNO and a systems integrator, our teams collaborated to provide an end-to-end virtualised solution from RAN to the core that met all the requirements of installing in such a challenging environment. Executed in the middle of the Arctic winter with temperatures ranging from between −48 and −51°C (−55 to −60°F), ski-doos had to be used to transport much of the equipment to the sites. With all of the hardware being COTS-based (commercially available off the shelf), the site equipment and associated site footprint requirement was quite small. Having a compact, easy to install solution that was able to be deployed fast before the worker’s gloves froze to the equipment was crucial in making the installation a success. Parallel Wireless’ virtualised radio access network (vRAN) software-enabled solution, allowed for architectural simplicity, programmability, elasticity, and automation – all of which is built ready to scale far into the future. With each location deployed independently, we were able to add an additional level of resilience as the users will still have connectivity if the satellite link happens to go down. Going forward, Ice Wireless, will fully utilise the Software-Defined Radio (SDR) capability of the RAN (radio access network) technology to incorporate both 3G, 4G/LTE, and 5G (in the future) into a single integrated solution that delivers the smallest site footprint with the lowest power consumption.

The Future Network: You are doing a lot of work in providing rural coverage solutions at the moment, could you please explain the business model for this application? 

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

Our business model is focussed on reducing the cost of the base station and everything associated with it; backhaul, installation, and all the associated costs. We are not providing backhaul solutions because we are backhaul agnostic and can work with any technology, so we can fit in with whatever the customer wants and whatever is available. We have fibre, satellite, microwave, wireless, and wireless mesh backhaul capabilities, so we can extend wirelessly, or we can daisy chain them or cluster them. Any kind of wireless backhaul is very cost effective. The range for wireless backhaul is between 5-10km depending on line of sight.

The Future Network: And how do Parallel Wireless view the indoor vs outdoor markets for small cells / DAS? Do you have a preference for one environment over the other, and if so why?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

We view the indoor and outdoor markets as very similar, because MNOs are not going to deploy indoor solutions unless it is cost effective for them. The challenge in in-building solutions is the same as in rural environments, whereby it has not historically been cost effective for the operators to deploy cellular networks in these areas. As soon as they can justify the costs they will deploy. Everything comes down to the cost of the infrastructure. We will work in indoor, or outdoor, with small cells or DAS, as long as the operators want to bring new coverage solutions, we are agnostic as to which environment that is in.

The Future Network: We recently read about an innovative project involving the placement of small cells on Singapore buses in partnership with M1, are you able to share some details and key learnings from this experience?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

This was a HetNet trial lead by the government, who were trying to create the world’s first smart nation and provide their citizens with ubiquitous connectivity. We used our small cell which we use for Public Safety on buses, and the project tested flexible backhaul, and provided LTE and Wi-Fi coverage, with HetNet Gateway managing seamless handovers and end user traffic. It was a proof of concept for small cells on wheels, and it worked. We were able to demonstrate seamless handoffs from voice over LTE to voice over Wi-Fi, and this is important because it is the same technology that is used in police vehicles, because you need to have that seamless connectivity in public safety applications. It is a captive audience solution that feeds into the bigger picture of building a truly heterogeneous network.

The Future Network: Geographically, where do you see the most interest in your services currently?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

Anywhere where you need to bring new coverage cost-effectively and on an accelerated timeline. We can work anywhere in the world.

The Future Network: And finally, how do you see the future of cellular networks evolving?

Rajesh Mishra, Co-founder, CTO and President, Parallel Wireless:

The networks will become simple, automated, and easy to deploy and maintain which will allow the 4 billion unconnected to finally have access to the internet.

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