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SuperCell, a Wide-Area Coverage Solution for Increasing Mobile Connectivity in Rural Communities

In this blog we have looked at lots of different solutions to improve rural and remove connectivity (see related posts at the end of this post). Now Facebook Connectivity has announced that they have been working on prototyping the SuperCell, a wide-area coverage solution for increasing mobile connectivity in rural communities. After working with telecom industry partners to conduct several trials and data analyses, they are ready to share what they have learned.

From the Facebook Engineering blog post

SuperCell is a large-area coverage solution that leverages towers up to 250 meters high and high-gain, narrow-sectored antennas to increase mobile data coverage range and capacity.  

Our field measurements found that a 36-sector SuperCell base station mounted on a 250-meter tower can serve a geographical coverage area up to 65 times larger than a standard three-sector rural macro base station on a 30-meter tower in the same topography. In an analysis of uncovered regions in Nigeria, using publicly available population density data coupled with insight from Facebook Connectivity’s Advanced Network Planning tools, we determined that a single SuperCell could replace 15 to 25 traditional macrocells, or hundreds of small cells, to provide coverage to the same number of people; and that a network of SuperCells could be deployed at more than 33 percent lower overall total cost of ownership (TCO) compared to a network of macrocells. 

Left: The flat rural terrain around the site in Quad City, Illinois. Right: The 300-meter guyed broadcast tower used for the coverage experiments.

Considering the coverage gap, topography, and infrastructure needs in sub-Saharan Africa, we believe this is a region where SuperCell has potential for high impact.

Why do we need it?

In many rural areas around the world, mobile is the only option for internet connectivity. But many rural communities still lack mobile internet access because the macrocell technologies that are traditionally used to deliver mobile connectivity to urban areas are simply not economically viable for remote communities in lower-middle-income countries. SuperCell is designed to be a cost-effective, reliable alternative to traditional macrocell sites and to better address the need for connectivity in rural areas.

How does SuperCell compare to alternative solutions?

We don’t believe there’s a silver bullet for connecting the world. The telecom industry has developed several innovative technologies and business models to address the coverage gap in rural areas. These range from inexpensive small cell solutions that can provide coverage to small settlements (a 0.5- to 1-kilometer radius) with satellite backhaul; large-area coverage cellular solutions using tethered aerostats; and large-area coverage solutions using stratospheric balloons. There are also technologies aimed at making rural backhaul more cost-effective, including modular microwave backhaul solutions in unlicensed bands, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations to provide ubiquitous coverage, and medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellations.

The table below provides a brief summary of some of the pros and cons of various solutions, including SuperCell.

Should be noted from the above table that the following cons are listed for SuperCell

  • Sites must be planned well; moving the site after construction is not possible
  • Potentially a single point of failure for a large region
  • High power consumption, but OpEx is simpler due to a single site versus multiple sites

Detailed post is available on the Facebook Engineering site here and also on Facebook Connectivity site here. A research paper is available here as well as on Arxiv here.

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