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Nokia has developed partnerships with key CSPs and TowerCos in the MEA region to deliver its Rural Connect solution. In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Danial Mausoof, head of sales for mobile networks, Nokia Middle East and Africa, shares information about this innovative solution, the partnerships behind it and its growth outlook, among other valuable insights.

Can you share with us details about Nokia's Rural Connect solution and the purpose behind it?

Rural Connect is an innovative, full turn-key green solution developed by the Nokia MEA Center of Expertise, specifically for MEA rural requirements and related challenges. Service providers can use it to “Connect the Unconnected” and bring mobile connectivity to low-ARPU areas with fully optimized Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Nokia Rural Connect helps CSPs and Tower Companies reduce the digital divide by offering reliable connectivity and efficiently addressing the pressing rural key challenges:

  • Green efficient power systems: Standalone off-grid solar solution with options to attach AC power.
  • Robust infrastructure: Rural-design catalog for wide options of towers and supports to address maximum environments and use cases.
  • Reliable backhaul: Flexible wired and wireless options, electrical or optical cables, Microwave, Non-Terrestrial Satellite and field-proven “UE (User Equipment) Relay” solutions. We have seen the great benefits of UE Relay backhauling solutions with one of our MEA customers. Rural sites can be connected through LTE backhaul over an 8.46 km distance from a 4G donor site and still deliver outstanding, consistent performance versus VSAT satellite transmission.
  • Future-proof scalable solution: Nokia Rural Connect supports 2G, 3G and 4G concurrently and can scale smoothly and sustainably to 5G. Capacity upgrades can be done efficiently with Rural Connect through Nokia’s unique, highly-capable and power-efficient HW (BBU and RF products) and SW features, modular power systems and efficient infrastructure solutions. Nokia Rural Connect enables CSPs to deploy and scale commercially viable rural networks at lower TCO by supporting network-sharing initiatives and technologies such as national roaming, MOCN RAN sharing, MORAN RAN sharing and Network-as-a-Service (NaaS).

Why is it important to create a future-proof rural broadband network that connects more people?

Governments and policymakers across the world are considering broadband connectivity in rural areas as a strategic priority that creates socio-economic benefits for citizens and businesses.

Rural connectivity keeps gaining momentum in MEA through many government initiatives like “Decent Life” in Egypt, Orange’s “Lead the future” and MTN’s “Ambition 2025,” which are some examples of the commitment our customers are making to improve digital inclusion. Likewise, an increasing number of CSPs in MEA are translating the importance of rural connectivity into their strategic plans and their ESG objectives.

Case studies of rural solution deployments in Africa have shown that “future-proof” is a super important attribute that unlocks network scaling to accommodate the increased traffic growth at lower cost and optimized power consumption. The ecosystem is looking to embrace other innovative options like “RAN-sharing initiatives” between CSPs to address the economic and financial challenges in building rural networks at scale, and such infrastructure sharing features and capabilities are inherently built into Nokia’s Rural Connect solution.

How will Rural Connect improve the Nokia network's reliability and effectiveness across the MEA region?

As part of Nokia CSR, Nokia is committed to contributing to economic development while improving quality of life. Furthermore, Nokia Rural Connect deployment across every corner of the MEA would allow operators to efficiently develop their coverage and be part of this growth while reducing CAPEX and OPEX through new business models such as NaaS.

  • Healthcare, in which Telehealth can assist healthcare systems and providers in extending access to and raising the quality of rural healthcare.
  • Education, including elementary, secondary, and higher education. This can also include special education distance learning.
  • Public safety, especially first responder communications. Public Safety broadband services can rely on commercial Mobile Network Operator (MNO) infrastructure.

What more needs to be done to reach underserved communities? How will Nokia maximize its rural broadband opportunities to expand partnerships?

GSMA intelligence highlights that as of 2022, around 190 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa (17% of the population) were not covered by a mobile broadband network. Africa still has a large portion of the population that is not covered or is underserved, and the digital situation can be significantly improved through the power of partnerships.

Nokia has learned several lessons from multiple rural cases in the MEA. Some key barriers to be addressed through collaboration and partnerships to extend rural coverage and reach underserved communities are:

  • Higher CAPEX and OPEX to build mobile networks in hard-to-reach areas: innovative green rural solutions with optimized TCO and quick Return on Investment (ROI) like Nokia Rural Connect can play a critical role in this area as a key enabler for broadband connectivity and a catalyst for digital services. Telecom operators are exploring other initiatives and new business models like RAN infrastructure sharing arrangements and Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) to lower the TCO.
  • Low smartphone penetration in rural areas: we have seen high “2G only” or “3G only” feature phone penetration, and introducing affordable entry-level smartphones and subsidizing cost-efficient smartphones will help further the rural communities.
  • Digital literacy in rural communities: This aspect is another stumbling block for digital inclusion as, in some cases, citizens are not quite familiar with using smartphones and mobile applications. Nokia, telecom operators and other partners can play an important role in boosting digital skills by providing relevant training.

Nokia has developed partnerships with key CSPs and TowerCos in the MEA region to deliver its Rural Connect solution. As a result of these partnerships, Nokia is deploying its Rural Connect solution in many countries across the MEA, such as Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Cameroon.

What are the short- and medium-term goals that Rural Connect would like to achieve in the next five years?

Nokia’s Rural Connect solution is future-proof by design, which allows it to scale efficiently at optimized TCO in the next five years and address wide rural deployment options and scenarios. This will therefore help our customers bridge the digital divide at lower cost and with superior connectivity performance. While this solution was developed in the MEA market, it will soon be launched globally and available in all markets. Nokia will continue developing the solution further to ensure new potential requirements are addressed, thereby ensuring a smooth evolution towards 5G.

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