The United States isn’t the only country trying to close its digital divide. Operators in China are striving to do the same. Recently, China Unicom and Huawei worked together to bring mobile voice and data services to a remote village in Southern China. What makes their collaboration unique is that they used integrated access backhaul (IAB) technology for the deployment.
IAB uses wireless links instead of microwave or fiber for backhaul. It can be helpful in areas where it’s too difficult or costly to lay fiber and where microwave doesn’t make sense.
The downside to IAB is that it uses some of the spectrum that would otherwise be available to deliver mobile services.
China Unicom deployed Huawei’s RuralStar Pro in the mountainous village of Maopo in Guizhou Province. The village sits at 3,280 feet above sea level and is often surrounded by thick fog. Previously, the villagers had weak or no signal coverage and had to walk up the mountains to make a call.
The foggy climate made it unsuitable to use microwave backhaul, and it was cost-prohibitive to lay fiber in the mountainous region.
Huawei’s RuralStar Pro integrates the baseband, radio and wireless LTE backhaul all in one box.
According to Huawei, the integrated design reduces the site's power consumption to a little over 100 watts, which is far lower than that of the traditional site. And the box can be installed on a 20-foot pole, minimizing installation costs.
Huawei said the installation and commissioning of the RuralStar Pro in Maopo village took only two hours, which was an 80% shorter time-frame than a traditional site installation.
After the site was deployed, the coverage proportion in the village rose from 5% to 85%, and LTE voice services and a data download speed of 20 Mbps are now accessible to the residents.
IAB in the U.S.
In the United States, IAB, which was standardized for 5G in the 3GPP’s Release 16, is being viewed as a stop-gap measure for 5G urban densification. It can be used in places where it’s challenging to immediately lay fiber for backhaul. With IAB, operators can use an existing cell site with the airlink interface as backhaul for other nearby cell sites.
Speaking at a FierceWireless virtual event in 2020, Mark Gilmour, VP of mobile connectivity with Colt Technology, said, “I do see a disadvantage in that it uses precious spectrum that has been acquired through auction."
But perhaps IAB could have broader uses in the U.S., not just for 5G in urban areas, but with an eye toward closing the digital divide.