Bringing 5G Broadband to Developing Regions Requires Network Acceleration

by David Levi

Residents of technologically advanced countries sometimes take for granted the blessings of instantaneous access to the wealth of information on the internet, the almost infinite options for media and entertainment, and connections to friends, family, and colleagues anywhere. All those advantages are only getting better with the advent of 5G broadband. With 5G will come interconnectivity between devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented/virtual learning and gaming, and other advanced latency-sensitive applications.

But what about the developing world? 5G networks’ potential to replace physical fiber networks and better penetrate areas currently lacking a real broadband infrastructure could transform these regions economically.

Broadband is clearly a driver for economic growth. A World Bank report calculated that for every 10 percent that a developing economy can improve broadband penetration, it benefits from a nearly 1.4 percent improvement in GDP.

This advancement creates new jobs in cities and rural areas. Existing businesses gain access to innovations and new business models. Small businesses can grow and even become globally competitive. The quality, skills, and technological savvy of local workforces improve.

5G broadband can also improve education, health care, and emergency services. The ultra-low latency anticipated with 5G will enable instantaneous communications for medical imaging, monitoring, and screening, and make remote surgery possible. With 5G-connected IoT sensors, agricultural growth can be optimized through better water and fertilizer management, reducing the risks of droughts and agricultural crises and aiding the environment.

But there are challenges to bringing 5G broadband to the developing world. First is a lack of infrastructure; there is little in the way of cell towers and base stations, and much of the equipment currently deployed is too antiquated to ever support 4G. We need a significant leap – essentially skipping a generation of technology – but this requires a large investment and some hard choices.

Financial realities inhibit service providers when it comes to investing in rural and underdeveloped areas. In the face of the high costs of network deployment and management, plus a generally low level of revenue per user, providers must keep costs as low as possible. And with concerns about the reliability and availability of power in many developing areas, a low-power solution is an absolute requirement for 5G broadband projects.

If service providers focus on deploying distributed compute resources closer to the network’s edge instead of laying fiber, they will be more likely to be able to support the high bandwidth low latency services that will most benefit the developing world. The key is to move from a heavy network infrastructure to the network of the future – one that is agile, virtualized, and cloud-based, with smaller and more efficient virtual central offices strategically located at the edge of the network.

Network acceleration is critical for reducing latency and minimizing costs associated with large rural 5G deployments. Such solutions can save space and power, especially when the network acceleration is performed with hardware that can replace traditional server cores. For example, by using FPGAs embedded in network adapters – SmartNICs – to handle all data plane functions, operators can significantly reduce the need for servers, saving both space and power.

Programmable for a wide range of functions, FPGAs offer deterministic, low latency performance and low power and space requirements, along with high flexibility and long-term cost-effectiveness for carriers. This enables easy future upgrades compared with other solutions.

Ultimately, to achieve the great benefits of 5G broadband, FPGA-based network acceleration will be a key element in reducing power, space, and cost. It will further enable the high bandwidth and low latency needed for delay-sensitive services – the kinds of services that can positively transform remote rural communities and underprivileged urban centers.