Rural Broadband: Are wireless networks the elephant in the room?

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Rural Broadband: Are wireless networks the elephant in the room?

wireless networksMany people living in rural areas struggle to get fast broadband, some unable to receive broadband at all, others are lumbered with less than 2Mbps, making a lot of the ways most of us use the internet day-to-day a frustrating, even impossible proposition. To make matters more difficult, rural ‘notspots’ could now miss out on the government’s pledge to give everyone a minimum broadband speed of 10 Mbps by 2020.

Minister Ed Vaizey told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that there were some parts of the UK where the cost of installation was simply too prohibitive, ruling them out of having their upgrade costs covered by the government. “I’m not going to guarantee to you that every single premise is going to get 10 Mpbs but it should be potentially possible”. For the vast majority of people in the UK, 10mbps would be the absolute minimum, I would emphasise that 10mbps is a floor, rather than a ceiling so you should get at least 10mbps, perhaps even more.”

Despite these problems, he said that the BDUK team (responsible for delivery the government’s promises on rural broadband) were still on track to deliver 95 per cent of Britain’s geography with ‘Superfast’ broadband which the government then defines as being 10mbps.

But what about the remaining 5% and what are those problems exactly? Well, as it turns out, this is not as simple as we think. These combined problems have created that perfect storm, which reduces the likelihood of ever reaching that 5% using traditional methods. So what are these problems?

Long distances over old, copper-wire infrastructure

The copper wires that are used to carry standard (ADSL) broadband slow an internet connection down the further they have to travel from the telephone exchange to the home or business. The further you are from the exchange, the slower your broadband will be.

This is not so much of a problem in urban areas where exchanges serve so many properties as, you tend not to be far from your nearest one. But in remote rural areas some homes are several miles from the local exchange, delivering super slow broadband.

Bundled Telephone exchanges

All telephone exchanges are owned by BT, but other providers are allowed to put their own technical equipment into exchanges so they can supply standard broadband connections independently. This allows them to offer both improved speeds and lower their prices. These exchanges are known as Local Loop Unbundled (LLU), or ‘unbundled’ exchanges. Over 14% of businesses and homes in the UK are connected to a non-LLU or ‘bundled’ exchange and these are mostly in rural areas. In these cases, other providers use BT’s wholesale equipment, meaning there’s little to differentiate them in terms of speed and cost. Some providers impose download limits or fair use policies to customers on non-LLU exchanges. Non-LLU broadband packages are both more expensive, and far less available.

Fibre broadband availability

BT is currently replacing copper cables with fibre optic cables, which can deliver speeds up to 50 times faster than standard broadband in some areas. However, BT has classed some areas as ‘non-commercially viable’. This means that the area is not big enough to ensure BT gets a return on its investment.

What’s being done to resolve these problems?

In 2011 the government set up the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, with the aim of bringing superfast broadband to 95% of the country by 2017. Superfast broadband is defined as an internet connection of 24Mbps or above. For the remaining 5% of the country, the government aims to provide broadband with a speed of at least 2Mbps.

Huge investment has been injected into the project

The government originally invested £1.2 billion in rural broadband, and has since handed an extra £250 million to local councils to ensure superfast broadband is available to the majority of homes..

BT is installing fibre connections

All 41 local authorities have chosen BT to bring superfast broadband to their areas. BT is using fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology to deliver the speeds required to hit the government’s target. This involves running fibre cables from a local telephone exchange to a local, green street cabinet.

Community initiatives are filling in the gaps

Not all properties are connected to a roadside cabinet and are therefore excluded from the government’s superfast broadband rollout. In some communities where residents are experiencing slow standard broadband and aren’t eligible for FTTC broadband, groups of residents have decided take matters into their own hands and install their own fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks. FTTH can deliver up to 1Gbps broadband (over 50 times faster than the UK average) straight into a customer’s home, without the need for a street cabinet.

While the Government and BT forge ahead to deliver Superfast Broadband to the majority, what is being done to serve the remaining 5% with crawling speeds and overcome the rural-urban digital divide? Over the past 10 years, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has been advocating hard for parity with urban areas, making a convincing case for delivering Superfast broadband to these areas to boost business but admit that this process is “slow, cumbersome and excessively mired in red tape”. They go on to make a series of recommendations, including competition within the bidding process to ensure providers are working hard (and innovatively) to deliver, making strategic alliances with other trade associations and call to ‘piggy-back’ on public sector broadband.

However, there is an elephant in the room. This elephant has been sat around for a while,wireless networks as many focus on traditional hardwired approaches to deliver Superfast broadband. Even OFCOM (in their report in March), supported the CLA with rolling out faster speeds but dutifully ignored the elephant. If the Government, BT and OFCOM say it may not be commercially viable to deliver Superfast broadband to rural areas, so what can be done – apart from wringing hands? Well, put simply, the elephant is wireless point to point (multi and mesh) networks. If digging extensive trench networks or replacing the old copper is too expensive, why touch that at all? If Superfast Broadband or fibre can reach rural exchanges, then it is fairly simple to install Point to Point Radio, which can extend up to 100km delivering 1.2Gbps throughput. If someone is even more remote than that, then these devices can be daisy chained to handover the connection with a further 100km reach. So at the minimum commitment to rural areas (at 2Mbps), 600 homes can be connected. However, if 600 homes required Superfast broadband it is not exactly fanciful to think that there is a financial incentive (by the key providers) to install fiber to those areas.

Lastly, I’m not pretending that wireless networks are the magic bullet and there are problems with it, but is the elephant in the room being too easily dismissed before the decision makers have given it a chance to solve these problems?