The mass remote work revolution needs rural connectivity

By James Cater, Vice President - Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Spirent Communications.

Remote connectivity is now an issue of central importance for businesses. Remote work rests on our ability to provide connected services with the same kind of reliability that workers might expect in an office. For many urban workers - that’s not too much of a problem.

However, the countryside is a place that has historically been poorly served by telecommunications. As remote work solidifies its place in modern ways of working, the need to get connectivity in even the most isolated of places is mounting fast.

How remote work became a fact of working life

In 2018, remote work was a benefit offered by a growing collection of forward-thinking companies. Even then, those dispensations were uncommon - there would only ever be a handful of employees working remotely at one time, and even then for only a few days a week.

The next year, that all changed. As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world - remote work went from a fringe benefit to a survival necessity. As lockdowns eased and the pandemic receded, remote work became a fixture of working life. It wasn’t too long before Silicon Valley giants were announcing that their employees would never need to come into the office again. One Gallup study from 2021 underlined the ironclad popularity of remote working among workers in the US. Gallup’s State of the Workforce Study polled thousands of American workers and found that 91% of them hoped to continue remote working after the pandemic and three in ten would look for another job if their current employer forbade them from remote work. In the UK, data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that over 80% of British workers want to maintain a hybrid working model in the future.

Remote work is modern work. We have to ensure that workers can work from anywhere with the same productivity that they might otherwise enjoy in the office. To do that, we have to extend connectivity to areas which have often been poorly served.

Rural connectivity

The countryside is one of those areas. While urban centres enjoy the heights of connectivity, rural areas are often overlooked by telecommunications operators who may not see profitable opportunities in areas of such low population density.

As a result, many areas have suffered from slow internet speeds, poor connectivity and reduced infrastructure. Better connectivity could provide opportunities for remote work as well as market incentives to invest in these areas and bolster existing infrastructure. According to a recent report from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), nearly 10% of the UK and 20% of Scotland are ‘not-spots’ meaning that they have no coverage at all. In the US, the FCC has said that around 17% of the rural US population cannot access internet speeds faster than 25 Mbps. To make remote working viable, that has to be fixed.

New 5G technology is solving an old problem

Fortunately that appears to be changing. 5G is bringing new possibilities for rural broadband coverage and remote work onto the horizon.

Urban areas enjoy fast connection speeds of sometimes gigabits per second. However, those signals - which represent the higher band of the radio spectrum - cannot travel far. In fact, most need to live within a mile of a radio tower to actually take advantage of those speeds.

Where rural areas can benefit is in the low and mid bands. In this part of the spectrum, 5G networks can use radio signals to deliver service over hundreds of miles. These signals can provide connections that well exceed 4G capabilities and do so over a greater distance too.

There have also been a long line of indications that better connectivity is indeed coming to the countryside. Operators are now promising to extend their areas of coverage. US operator T-Mobile, for example, have loudly proclaimed its plans to extend mid-range coverage across the United states by three-fold.

Governments are incentivising operators to extend service to these areas too. In 2020, the UK government pledged £5 billion to extend 5G out to underserved areas, while the US government’s 5G Fund for Rural America will devote $9 billion to the task. Developments in 5G technology are also furthering the cause with efficiency gains that will allow operators to extend 5G to more places for less. Developments such as Non-Terrestrial Networks and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites - which can beam 5G signals from space to previously isolated areas - will do much to improve the possibilities here.

Beyond remote work

The benefits extend far beyond effective remote work. Secure internet connections could vastly expand the economic potential for poorly-served rural areas.

Internet connections are the critical underpinning element of modern business. With rural connectivity, remote areas will be better placed to attract new businesses, taking advantage of untapped local talent pools and enjoying the considerable savings from locating outside expensive urban areas.

Rural internet users will likely experience greater value for money than they currently experience, as they pay premiums for connections that often don’t provide worthwhile service.

The agricultural sector also stands to gain much from 5G which can power a series of connected technologies which will help farms automate complex processes and make informed decisions. A 2019 report from the US Federal Communications Commission revealed that better broadband connections were associated with both lower costs for things like fuel, fertiliser and seed and a near 4 percent increase in crop yields.

Similarly, rural healthcare and education will enjoy those benefits as better connectivity aids their adoption of new capabilities such as telemedicine or better long-distance learning.

Obstacles

5G is making huge strides but rural connectivity is not a foregone conclusion. Despite those strides, operators may not see enough profit potential in extending coverage to those rural areas. Furthermore, there is still resistance in certain communities about the possibilities of telecoms infrastructure crowding their otherwise idyllic landscape. Many also believe the misinformation that has been spread around 5G. If rural communities were to turn against 5G, projects could stop in their tracks.

There are also concerns about the viability of individual networks. 5G’s capabilities are just that: Capabilities. 5G networks need to be tested rigorously under real-world conditions in order to realise their true potential.

5G network infrastructures are commonly placed in urban environments, and rural locations provide new conditions and challenges which those infrastructures will have to be tested against. If network operators neglect this stage then the reliability of their 5G networks, and the wide coverage they’re supposed to make possible, could be at risk.

5G makes the remote work revolution work

5G for rural areas will make remote work a continually viable option for employees and employers alike, and permitting even greater productivity gains from secure, reliable and available connections to the workplace.

This will also allow businesses to draw on untapped rural talent pools who have been held back by simple geography. The run-off effects of these developments could be transformative for those areas who can attract investment, empower local businesses and revive infrastructure. One Cisco report estimates that the economies of rural areas in the UK could grow by £17 billion when they have access to sufficiently fast 5G services.

Remote work looks like it’s here to stay. If we want it to keep working, 5G could provide a way to reinforce its efficacy as well as inject capital into remote areas. The advent of 5G may be the thing that finally brings connectivity to even the most remote of rural areas, and in so doing, undergirds the remote work revolution.

By Geoff Dornan, Group Chief Technical Officer at CMC Networks.
By David Trossell, CEO and CTO of WAN Acceleration company Bridgeworks Ltd.
By Marc Serra, Chief Marketing Officer and Corporate Development Officer, Infovista.
By Stuart McKay, Business Development, Panduit.
It is true to say that when many people think of 5G they think only of mobile – 5G networks for mobile users have been around since 2019 and, whilst availability is still limited, the benefit of faster speeds is widely known. However, there is another side to 5G, less visible and often untapped by businesses, which is accelerating quickly - the 5G enabled network. By Stephen Bates, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, M247