Here in 2020, in the midst of a flourishing digital revolution, high-speed Internet connectivity is now within reach of practically everyone, everywhere, right? Not exactly. The high-tech future may be moving full steam ahead in cities and suburbs, but rural regions still face a huge digital divide.  

According to a 2019 study from the Pew Research Center, rural residents are 12 percent less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband, and nearly a quarter (24%) say getting access to high-speed Internet remains a major problem. Overseas, the U.K.’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee noted in its 2019 report, “Despite improvements in coverage since [2015], poor broadband and mobile data services continue to marginalise rural communities.”

These problems plague almost every region. Fast, reliable Internet access has become as fundamental to economic growth as electrification was in the early 20th century. But, actually delivering it to rural customers remains a major ongoing challenge for industry and government.

It’s not that service providers don’t want the business. Many have partnered with the government for years to try to close this gap. Extending mobile and fixed infrastructure to remote areas requires major investment. Beyond the challenges of just distance, there are issues with terrain and foliage that can make delivering wireless services or trenching fiber more difficult. When that infrastructure serves just a handful of customers per square mile (compared to thousands in cities and suburbs), it’s much harder to generate a sustainable ROI.

Fortunately, there’s good news on the horizon: connecting rural regions is getting easier and less expensive every year. Expanded spectrum, new fiber trenching methods, and modern microprocessors are driving down costs per subscriber for rural network investments. Even more significant, advances in disaggregated solutions, software-defined networking (SDN), and automation make mobile and fixed broadband networks much simpler and less expensive to operate.

Many of these innovations simply didn’t exist the last time service providers were exploring major expansions into rural regions. By taking advantage of them now, we can build a Cisco Rural Broadband smarter, more cost-effective foundation for serving rural subscribers—and finally, fulfill the promise to close the digital divide. Find out more about Cisco rural broadband solutions for rural service providers.

Evolving Access Architectures Drive Down Costs

One of the biggest trends across all residential access architectures (cable, wireless, and fiber) is the disaggregation of hardware and software. By moving network functions from dedicated appliances to software that can run on general-purpose servers and the cloud, service providers gain a more flexible network that’s less expensive to deploy and scale.

Open, virtualized radio access network technology (Open vRAN) is probably the most obvious example of this, but there are several others, such as cloud-native broadband network gateway (cnBNG) and virtual optical line terminals (vOLT). In all cases, these open, modular architectures provide more flexibility in software and hardware choices. More importantly, they allow service providers to scale control plane and data plane functions independently, paying for only what they actually need.

The disaggregation trend in access infrastructure is still in its early stages, but it will play a central role in reducing network capital and operating expenses in the years ahead.

Digital Divide Meets Software Defined Networking (SDN)

SDN is upending the status quo for networking, and rural infrastructure is no exception. To take advantage of it, service providers should ensure that any new access network investments support programmability.

SDN allows for more efficient network architectures that can fully utilize any and all network uplink paths. Support for segment routing with transport-independent loop-free alternate (TI-LFA), for example, enables a much more efficient architecture that uses all Equal-Cost Mutli-Path Routing (ECMP) paths available for forwarding.

Techniques like these deliver major benefits compared to legacy Layer-2 forwarding, which creates all sorts of access network challenges (security vulnerabilities, the complexity of subtended rings and ladder topologies, and others). As a pioneer and global leader in segment routing and SDN, Cisco is committed to bringing these innovations to rural service providers. And, we’re doing it using merchant silicon to optimize costs, without sacrificing functionality or the promise of programmability.

Next Up: Automation

SDN doesn’t just make rural networks more efficient; it lays the foundation for end-to-end automation. By deploying programmable network infrastructure, and extending programmability up through subscriber management systems (broadband network gateway, packet core, and more), concepts like zero-touch provisioning and closed-loop automation become viable. As rural service providers progress through this journey, they can slash the costs and timelines to provision services and eliminate costly misconfigurations.

Is Your Network Ready to Bridge the Digital Divide?

For those living in rural areas without access to fast, reliable Internet, the digital divide can’t be closed soon enough. Thanks to these new innovations, rural service providers are in a prime position to do it.

AutomationDisaggregated solutions, segment routing, SDN, and other advances are already making networks simpler to operate and scale, driving down the total cost of ownership. Cisco is committed to helping rural service providers take advantage of them. We’re implementing these innovations in platforms like the Cisco® Network Convergence System (NCS) 540 , the NCS 560 Series, the NCS 5500 Series routers, the Cisco ASR 9900 Series Aggregation Services Router, and Cisco IOS-XR Software. We’re also continuing to lead the way in SDN, developing a new generation of programmable solutions that will transform the economics of deploying and operating access networks.

No matter which strategy you’re pursuing expanding or updating rural networks, make sure you’re keeping these innovations top of mind. The last thing you want is to focus narrowly on upfront capital costs, only to find yourself locked out of the huge long-term operational savings that come with open, programmable infrastructure. By taking advantage of modern network innovations, you can build more economical, automated access networks. We can finally begin closing the digital divide for good.

Close the funding gap and expand your rural broadband network now with flexible financing. Deliver the quality of service your customers expect and pay over time. Learn more.

Please register and join Cisco on October 6 at 8AM PST for a webinar: The Rural Broadband Opportunity: Close the digital divide with a new network foundation.


Marty Fierbaugh

Principal Architect

Service Provider - Americas