network in remote areas: does white space offer hope for rural broadband?

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Broadband internet is a basic human right – so said the United Nations in 2011. Dial-up Internet access is simply not good enough to be able to access all the game-changing services that broadband is enabling – such as e-health, entertainment and education. While broadband is undoubtedly on the increase worldwide, it is spread unevenly and rural areas are still lagging behind growth in the cities. Can white space communications smash this digital divide?

broadband: the gap between rural and urban areas is widening

Rural areas are lagging urban centers worldwide in terms of broadband speeds and penetration. Take the UK, for example, which is in fact comparatively densely populated. Recent analysis by UK regulator Ofcom, found that although broadband speeds are increasing nationwide, the gap between rural and urban areas is actually widening.

The average speed of fixed line residential broadband connections in the UK rose from 2.7 Mbps to 5.7 Mbps in just one year to May 2013. Most of this increase is because of super-fast broadband connections driving up the average. But breaking it down into urban and rural areas, the gap expanded to 16.5 Mbps in 2013, up from 9.5 Mbps in 2011.

rural communities need broadband

Ironically, it’s rural communities that can benefit most from broadband in many cases. Consider travelling several hours to your nearest doctor if you live in remote regions in Scotland, compared to walking down the street to your local doctor in a city. You’d probably concede that telemedicine would be better suited to the rural patient. Inclement weather, such as snow storms also cut rural communities off much more frequently.

The Plunkett Foundation has written an interesting report on how communities in the UK are striving bridge this rural broadband gap. It says that rural communities are worried that broadband provision will follow the same pattern as fixed line telephony, with coverage remaining patchy at best. This certainly looks to be the case with the Government only having a target of 90% of home connected to broadband by 2015.

The big stumbling block for rural broadband locations is the cost and difficulty of deploying infrastructure to remote, small and sparse populations. Many communities mentioned in the Plunkett report are taking the matter into their own hands with their own projects ranging from laying their own fiber to deploying their own long range wireless networks.

white space: freeing up radio spectrum

One technology appears frequently in discussion about overcoming this infrastructure challenge for rural broadband: white space. This white space is essentially unused radio spectrum, much of which has been liberated by the switch-off of analog TV signals. Interest in the technology has been rising as regulators around the world have freed up the spectrum for use.

UK company TTP did an early trial of the technology in Cambridge, which had to overcome heavy interference from TV transmitters. It tested many different power and transmitter configurations to calculate the technology’s early potential and suggested bandwidth as high as 23 Mbps within 2km of the base station, falling to 2Mbps when the range reached 10km.

Currently, the University of New Hampshire in the US is testing white space technology by connecting libraries that don’t have adequate broadband access themselves. The idea is that the technology can offer broadband access to several hundred users within a range of 10-15km from a single base station.

US technology giants Microsoft and Google are staunch backers of white space broadband. Microsoft is heavily involved in delivering white space broadband projects in Africa – specifically Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. The projects form part of its 4afrika initiatives and use solar powered base stations to bring broadband to rural communities. And Google is backing an Open Source project in California that hope to advance the technology required for white space broadband.

rural broadband solution: fiber versus LTE

One word of warning in all of this, however, is that as bandwidth requirements climb, few technologies can match the capacity of fiber to deliver it cost-effectively. Analyst-Mason points to the limitation of LTE in meeting broadband requirements in rural areas, and says that it is only really effective in really-hard to reach areas. It suggests that emerging market with little infrastructure should in fact focus on investing in fixed broadband infrastructure to ensure that future broadband needs are met.

However, white space and fiber are not mutually exclusive and white space can play a key part in deliver last mile access to broadband. So what do you think? Will white space technology bridge the rural broadband gap? Or will the countryside always be playing catch-up?

Anthony

Photo credit: © redlady - Fotolia.com

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.