Millimeter wave platforms rightly are seen as helpful mostly for capacity, rather than coverage. Ironically, millimeter wave networks might also be highly useful for many new actors to create localized communication platforms of high bandwidth, even in very-remote areas. And it might be the traditional suppliers (mobile or fixed telecom operators) who supply those networks.

To be sure, many rightly argue that small cell architectures primarily will be useful for capacity, rather than coverage, because of expected small cell distance limitations (by definition, a small cell covers a small area, compared to a macrocell).

Not all believe that, however. ABI Research believes small cells can be useful for rural coverage, if backhaul facilities are adequate.

In fact, it is limited small cell backhaul spending through 2020 that limits Internet access speeds for many rural and remote communities, while metropolitan connectivity moves to 5G, analysts at ABI Research argue.

ABI Research forecasts cumulative small cell backhaul links to rural and remote communities to top 220,000 through 2020.

Other developments, such as gear and systems that should develop from Facebook’s OpenCellular project, also offer the promise of lower-cost transmission capabilities, which will highlight the backhaul bottleneck.

“For rural access, small cells offer adequate capacity at lower costs and smaller sizes,” says Ahmed Ali, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. “They eliminate the need for macro deployments and cut the cost of equipment and installation in rural areas. Adopting features like mobile edge computing and local applications can improve the quality of service for customers and the ROI for operators.”

ABI Research forecasts the cumulative sub-6 GHz rural small-cell backhaul links through 2020 will dominate with 46 percent of total links deployed, followed by other microwave and satellite.

“While backhaul technologies continue to develop, small cells have proven, and will continue, to be suitable for rural and remote radio access,” Ali said.