LIVE FROM THE FUTURE OF WIRELESS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE, CAMBRIDGE: The use of small cells to bring better mobile coverage to rural communities is commercially viable, according to Simon Saunders (pictured), director of technology at Real Wireless, a consultancy firm.

Saunders told delegates that the application of the right technology for each situation is the key to making small cell implementation work in the rural context.

In Wales, for example, people tend to live in small villages in rural areas, meaning the use of a community-wide small cell would cover enough people to make it commercially viable. In contrast, Ireland’s rural population is very spread out, meaning macrocells are more appropriate.

“Big cells would work well if people are spread uniformly, but if we use small cells in villages we can do some good things,” Saunders noted.

“The right technology can help. It’s very much understanding what the shape of the need is and having a suite of solutions,”  he added, explaining how mobile operators can go some way towards avoiding the exponentially rising costs seen when trying to bring mobile coverage to the last few pockets of population without adequate services.

Saunders pitched the idea of repurposing metrocells used in high capacity urban areas, such as train stations, as “meadowcells” to serve entire villages. These could use various backhaul infrastructure, including fixed line or even satellites, to boost mobile coverage for rural communities.

If the costs of small cells can be brought down to 10 per cent or less of macrocells, Saunders suggested that the approach of using them in rural areas with clustered populations would be commercially viable.

When asked why small cells haven’t yet taken off in rural areas, Saunders attributed it to the “perception there isn’t a business benefit in these areas”, meaning operators have tended to focus on other areas.