Rural Internet: Bridging the fibre gap with wireless
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:
Credit: Kerdkanno

If you’re living or working in an area of the UK with slow – or no – fixed broadband should you wait until the Broadband Delivery UK scheme brings superfast fibre connectivity to you? Vaughan O’Grady investigates

Some 95 per cent of the UK should have superfast broadband coverage by late next year. At least that’s the government’s plan. However, while debate rages about when and whether it will happen and the merits of offering fibre to the cabinet rather than fibre to the home, it’s clear that a guaranteed rollout of fibre to the remaining five per cent is not going to happen. For this segment, it now seems likely that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme will abandon the supply side approach (everyone gets connectivity wherever they are) in favour of a broadband universal service obligation. In other words – a household or business will need to request service rather than expect it. How, when and where this happens, and who pays, remain to be seen.

Fibre is nevertheless making its way into some markets suppliers might see as uneconomic to serve on their own – via not-for-profit groups or community broadband initiatives such as Northamptonshire-based Tove Valley Broadband or Broadband for the Rural North. Both want faster broadband in homes, schools and businesses, and have decided that it may be cheaper, easier or quicker to do some or all of the rollout themselves, or in partnership with experts and (if they’re lucky) with some government funding.

Of course there are limits. The more remote the service has to go the more expensive it gets to deploy fibre, even with a willing community workforce. Farms, in particular, might represent both an inarguable need for communication and a difficult-to-reach business. This, in theory, makes wireless a better proposition, especially for suppliers. As Matt Yardley, partner at telecoms, media and technology consultancy Analysys Mason, says: “Wireless can provide a service across a large area relatively cost-effectively.”

Unlicensed spectrum can also often be used in rural areas. However, this is a finite resource and will have problems as the density of users increases (though increased user density may eventually make fibre viable).

As end users need higher speeds and increase their requirement for bandwidth, wireless will inevitably start to get more expensive. Then again, will every rural business worry about high speeds? Yardley suggests: “Newly-created businesses may not require vast amounts of bandwidth, but they do want something that is reliable.”

If you’re a farmer, for example, your internet could be mainly used for sending forms to the authorities – a relatively low overhead in terms of bandwidth. When more capacity is available you’d probably find a use for it: video streaming to allow a vet to inspect an animal perhaps. But such an application is merely a nice-to-have at the moment.

But what’s in it for wireless providers? It may be that they see a time-to-market opportunity while a universal service mechanism is still being defined, but also says Yardley: “They probably all look at slightly different market segments in different localities and have probably all got different service propositions that meet the strengths of their respective technologies.”

Also a distributed and unpredictable market is not ideal for fixed networks. “Wireless does allow you to do it in a piecemeal way and experiment,” Yardley explains. There is still a large fixed cost of entry involved though. And you still need enough customers to make the economics work. “Evidently some companies are able to do that,” he adds.

And some businesses are already doing so. Mimosa, a self-described ‘leader in cloud- managed, fibre-fast wireless solutions for the post-copper era’, provides fixed wireless. Mimosa’s point-to-point wireless offering in Buckinghamshire for Village Networks (another community broadband initiative) delivers wireless broadband internet connections in a number of rural areas. Jaime Fink, Mimosa’s co-founder and chief product officer, says: “Fixed wireless is poised to offer fibre-like speeds where previous wireless approaches have been unable to deliver, and offer a low-cost alternative to unavailable wireline solutions.”

He adds: “Today fixed wireless receivers are approximately one-third the diameter of traditional satellite antennas for distances shorter than three miles, and larger antennas can be used to cover longer distances.” These can usually be installed near or on the roofline and aimed by a professional installer in under an hour.

“In suburban and urban areas, where points of presence will be considerably closer than rural areas, the antennas remain quite compact, and over time will become easier to install on outdoor walls and interior windows and self-aim using newer beam-forming technologies,” he says.

However, a Buckinghamshire village may be easier to reach and more densely populated than, say, a farm in the Scottish Highlands, which begs the question of the limits of fixed wireless.

Fink feels that the technology can be applied to long-range, rural, line-of-sight, tower-based applications, as well as more integrated and compact suburban and urban contexts. He agrees, however, that costs and speeds may vary over distance. “In rural areas typical wireless internet service providers (ISPs) five years ago were on average eight miles from their customers, and while range still exists ISPs have moved operations closer to subscribers, reaching on average three to four miles. As the serving distances shorten attainable bandwidth can increase substantially for consumers and businesses.”

This is not just about hard-to-reach areas, he suggests. “There’s clearly markets for both higher density village areas and under- serviced rural areas. Given the continued disappointment with Openreach’s [the BT Group business that owns the pipes and telephone cables that connect most UK premises to the national broadband and telephone network] fibre solutions reaching the masses, it is a convenient time in both higher density and rural markets for this new form of fibre alternative to become available. The arrival of significantly lower- cost fixed wireless versus wireline alternatives makes this perhaps a first-moving alternative for the future.”

He is not alone in arguing the potential of wireless broadband. Matt Mangriotis, senior product manager at Cambium Networks, a global provider of wireless broadband solutions, says: “In a wireless network two wireless nodes communicate by transmitting and receiving data on a radio channel. This channel uses a certain amount of wireless spectrum, and in many areas suitable spectrum is scarce so using more of it is impractical. Multiple-input multiple-output, or MIMO, is a range of technologies used to multiply the capacity of wireless connections without requiring more spectrum.”

Multi-user MIMO is an extension of this, performing MIMO techniques simultaneously to more than one subscriber, multiplying the spectral efficiency and capacity of the deployment. However, Cambium seems to be taking this further with the PMP 450m – a fixed wireless broadband access solution using the company’s cnMedusa technology to provide Massive Multi-user MIMO in a cost- effective product or, as the company puts it ‘faster internet connections to significantly more people, places, and things’ that ‘allows network operators to offer 5G-like speeds surpassing DSL and cable while offering throughput comparable to fibre’.

The technology is not rolled out in the UK yet, although the majority of its development and early testing was completed out of Cambium’s UK office in Ashburton. However, Mangriotis says that several UK and Irish service providers have already placed orders and are waiting for product to become available. Cambium lists wireless carriers, wireline carriers and wireless ISPs among its customer base.

How about deployment? “All of the difficult parts of operation are taken care of by the product software and algorithms. Installation and operation are easy. Much of the innovation that went into this product design led to a fully integrated unit, removing complexities of antenna connections, which reduces both capital expense (for cabling, weatherproofing, etc.) and operating expense (by eliminating multiple points of failure). The system only requires a single Ethernet cable to provide both the data path and power.”

Perhaps, however, your business is very small and you already have fixed line connectivity but it’s frustratingly slow. While you’re waiting for something better Boosty (founded in 2013 to help those with poor broadband) could assist. While not strictly speaking a business solution, Boosty might be useful for the small office/home office end user with a less than adequate fixed connection who wishes to boost his or her speed.

As business development manager Matt Pick explains: “We saw the need for consumers to have fast broadband but in a lot of cases they didn’t necessarily want the cost and untidiness of having multiple lines into the house, with associated line rentals and broadband subscriptions. So we did some research and found there’s quite a good overlap of mobile coverage where there isn’t necessarily good broadband. Most people now have a smartphone and typically don’t chew through their data allowance, so essentially they’ve got a second broadband connection in their pocket that is fully paid for.”

The unit that makes this happen is a tiny box that plugs into the back of any router and effectively forms part of the wireless network. “When you’re using the internet it will make sure that everything goes over the primary DSL connection as much as possible – because obviously that’s the cheapest route. When it detects that that connection is saturated it shifts to cellular.”

You do need to be somewhere with 3G or 4G coverage for it to work, but it’s a reasonably priced and reliable way to utilise what the customer already has and maximise it.

Boosty allows users to increase their internet speeds using cellular networks

Many of these solutions may help at least some of the missing five per cent (and some of the 95 per cent who will still be waiting at the end of 2017) to enjoy better – if not always superfast – broadband. But what happens if you really are in the middle of nowhere?

As Analysys Mason’s Yardley points out: “Where you have more disparate sparsely populated areas of demand then traditionally that’s where satellite technology has been used.” That’s also where companies like Satellite Internet, a specialist satellite ISP serving homes and businesses in rural and hard-to-reach areas all over the UK and Eire, come in. It’s aided by the Better Broadband subsidy scheme, through which all properties with inadequate internet speeds (less than two Mbps), who will not benefit from the superfast broadband rollout may be able to receive a subsidised full connection to satellite services.

An end user may be able to get an acceptable speed from a fixed wireless ISP or copper. If so, Satellite Internet would advise them to do so. “However,” says David Hennell, its business development director, for those properties (he estimates roughly 300,000 in the UK) that can’t get any of those things “satellite can be implemented – not as cheaply as copper broadband, but certainly relatively cheaply, extremely quickly and literally almost anywhere”.

You’ll need a dedicated dish with a dedicated LNB (low-noise block downconverter – a receiver) on it. Don’t install it yourself, however.

“The tolerance involved in aligning a satellite dish, because of the distances involved, the data rates, and the error checking, is much tighter,” says Hennell. “So it’s always best to get it put up by us or one of our colleagues in the industry.” Add a dedicated satellite modem in the property, and a decent data throughput via the latest in Ka-band two-way satellite broadband systems (Satellite Internet makes use of the fleet owned by communications satellite owner and operator SES), and there you are.

But at £400 to £500, even for a simple installation, it isn’t cheap. How important then is the BDUK Better Broadband access scheme and the subsidies it offers for enabling access?

Hennell says: “There is an awareness now that there is a solution – even if it is an interim solution for two to three years until fibre arrives – that can be delivered very quickly. With the BDUK Better Broadband scheme the vast majority of the upfront costs are now covered if the residence or business is eligible.”

But even if connectivity is widely enabled, the next major business concern could be reliability. Consumers don’t normally pay to have a backup, and will just make do with their smartphones where coverage allows. That’s not an ideal solution for businesses. Thus how quickly a provider can find and fix a fault will increasingly be an issue as firms in rural areas seek or find an appropriate connectivity solution.

For now, however, at least there are connectivity options. And their number is growing. Fibre, satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular boosts are not necessarily the last word in broadband provision. Nokia and EE recently used a set of drones to carry Nokia’s Flexi Zone Pico small cell system around Inverness, giving users connectivity that had largely been unavailable in the past. Google’s Project Loon, meanwhile, leverages high- altitude balloons to provide internet access.

People are right to worry about rural connectivity when even the likelihood of 95 per cent coverage is being questioned as the deadline for that level of provision approaches.

However, there is no shortage of wireless- delivered solutions – some fast, some very fast, some acceptable, some interim and some (depending on the user’s needs) longer term. But who pays for their provision, and how, where and when they can be delivered is not always clear.

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