Broadband: there is another way

There has been a recent flurry of media interest in the ‘last mile’ broadband problem. This has been an ongoing issue for some while now, but has been rekindled by the launch of a report by the Broadband Stakeholder Group – the government’s advisory group on broadband – on the cost of deploying fibre-based, next-generation broadband in the UK.

The problem is how you get very fast broadband Internet speeds down to individual households. Although there are all sorts of high speed technologies that can deliver very high bandwidth across the Internet and down to your local telephone exchange, the ‘last mile’, down the street to the front door, remains a major technical issue.

Traditionally, houses have been connected to the telephone exchange through a cabinet, tucked away at the end of the street, that each house links to via a simple copper wire. Although technology has improved there is still a limit to what can be carried down a metal wire. The new report is all about fibre optics which can provide astonishingly fast speeds of up to (theoretically) 2.5Gb/s. The problem, of course, is the cost of digging up the streets to lay the fibre to each house – a cost that balloons rapidly when you take in rural areas. The report estimates a cost of £28billion to lay fibre directly to every home in the UK and £5billion to lay fibre to each street level cabinet and retain the existing copper wire for the last dozen yards or so. The latter is much cheaper but limits speeds to a theoretical max of around 100Mb/s.

There is though, as they say, another way. The alternative to laying cable is to use the growing range of wireless networking technologies. Most people have come across WiFi which is widely used by laptops for access to the Internet from hot spots such as railway stations and coffee shops. Less well known is the emerging WiMax standard.

By coincidence on the day after the broad band report came out my pals at Third Sector Media alerted me to a technology trial of WiMaX taking place just down the road from our office, here in Nottingham. Intel are conducting a trial called Forest in an area just north of the city.

The beauty of WiMax is that it can operate from a single mast over ranges measured in kilometres as opposed to WiFi whose effective range is measured in metres. It trumps fibre in the sense that there is no need to dig up the streets. According to the WiMax forum, who oversee its development, the technology can deliver ‘last mile’ broadband at speeds of up to 1-5 Mb/s. A later version of the standard is likely to increase this by a factor of around 7.

The BSG report makes no mention of WiMax – it is purely focused on the costs of fibre – and fibre does offer higher speeds. But technology is constantly changing. All this leaves me with one question: will the massive investment in digging up the streets be undertaken before technology and standards move on again and deliver even higher speeds wirelessly?

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One Response to “Broadband: there is another way”

  1. Raza Rizvi Says:

    Things are speeding up for users near ADSL2+ deployed exchanges. I switched from a 1Mb download service to an 18Mb download service AND cut my fees earlier this year.

    http://www.samknows.com/ is a good first step in finding out who can offer you DSL at higher speeds.

    Given the high costs in running fibre to people (FTTH) we are likely to see further efforts to improve the speed over copper performance.

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