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Interview: White Space Beats Fibre for Rural Broadband

Broadband Delivery UK should give £40 million to white space radio to connect the last ten percent of the population, says TTP’s head of wireless Richard Walker

On by Tom Jowitt 0

Fibre simply cannot connect the last ten percent of Britain, and the Government should instead be promoting white space” radio, which has been demonstrated successfully in Cambridge, according to Richard Walker of TTP.

The government has only put aside a small amount of money to support its aim of connecting the remoter parts of Britain – and if that is spent on fibre projects which cannot hope to cov er everywhere, Britain will have missed an opportunity for a cheaper and more effective wireless technology,  Walker,  TTP‘s head of wireless at technology, told TechWeekEurope from the Cambridge White Spaces Summit held at Duxford Air Museum on Wednesday.

White Space Trial

The summit included a report on the Cambridge white space trial, carried out by a consortium since  June 2011, as well as debate on how rebulators and the industry can support the use of white space technology in future.

The trial gave rural customers download speeds of up to 8Mbps over a distance of 5.5 kilometres using “white space radio” – sections of the TV radio spectrum  which are not in use in particular geographical areas.

According to Walker, the trial revealed three possible ways in which white space technology could be used.

These three real world applications of white space technology include a potential way to improve rural broadband; a potential solution for widespread coverage in urban areas (i.e. city wide connectivity); and for machine to machine communications (i.e dustbins telling the local council when they need emptying).

However speaking to Techweek Europe, TTP’s Richard Walker made it clear that with the focus so much on fibre-enabling the final third of the UK that will not covered by BT’s fibre deployment, white space technology should be viewed as a much better cost effective solution to delivering suitable connectivity to hard to reach areas.

Economic Argument

TTP views white space technology as the missing link for rural broadband and says it could help drive the UK economy forward by providing high performance rural broadband for up to two million ‘un-served’ premises across the country.

TTP is putting forward a strong economic reason for deploying white space technology, citing research conducted jointly by Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and Chalmers University of Technology published in September 2011.

Rural Broadband

“Our particular focus with white space technology is to do with rural connectivity,” explained Walker to Techweek Europe, speaking from a wet and windy Duxford. “BT and I have slightly different numbers, but we believe that roughly ten percent of the UK cannot be served by other technology such as ADSL over fibre. This gives white space technology a 10 percent opportunity in the UK.”

“There is now a very compelling business case, but as the above research suggests there is an even better economic case to make for white space technology,” said Walker. “That research suggested that if you added 10 percent of the population to the internet, there would be a one percent increase in GDP. This means that serving that last 10 percent is a £300m business opportunity, but it could be more as we have been very conservative with the numbers.”

And according to Walker, in order to get this off the ground, it would require a relatively modest investment of £40m, as a cash injection to connect up the final 10 percent of the UK. This is much lower than the £530m funding that the government has committed to the BDUK pot, or the £150m to resolve the UK’s mobile not-spots, both of which are knwon to be too small to do the job.

“The practical takeup of white space technology would be about 100,000 people per year, in order to get the necessary cash to fund the next 100,000 rollout,” said Walker. “This would guarantee the biggest economic return, but unfortunately there is no BDUK money to finish the job on broadband (i.e. the final 10 percent of the UK).”

Bang For Buck

“My theme today at this white space conference is that white space technology delivers the biggest bang for the buck if you invest that money wisely,” insisted Walker. “It will help both businesses small and large, but white space technology needs help in order to get off the ground, much like BT is getting help for fibre.”

“We can deliver 8Mbps over 5.6 kilometres, but users will get more speed the closer there are,” said Walker. “The speed goes up as the range comes down. We recorded 8Mbps downlink in a 8 megahertz V channel, and a 1.5Mbps uplink as well.”

Households would need a directional TV antenna (pointed in the right direction of course) in order to receive the white space signal.

“From there you would need a small box, no different to a typical Wi-Fi router in terms of cost, and similar in size, possibly located outdoors,” said Walker. “This box would be no different in cost or size or indeed power consumption compared to a traditional Wi-Fi router. This is because the transmission power of white space is no different to a Wi-Fi router, but Wi-Fi’s reach is usually only 10 metres, but ours can reach 6 kilometres [because it is in spectrum with good range].”

Walker did admit that rain can have an effect on the reception of the white space signal, but it is not affected as badly as satellite by adverse weather. Building clutter and foliage are the biggest issues affecting white space.

“We have gone from a point of thinking that white space is not possible, to a point now where it is possible,” said Walker. “And my conclusion is that it is not a matter of if, but when we will see the deployment of white space technology. There are enough powerful players in the room that can make this happen.”

Government Backing

So does Ofcom or the government need to do more to help white space technology get off the ground?

“Ofcom is doing the right thing,” said Walker. “White space technology just needs industry help. Ofcom is willing to listen but it needs industry input. But the government needs to consider its strategy as it has not set aside much money to bridge the last ten percent.”

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Tom Jowitt
Author: Tom Jowitt
Freelance TechWeek Reporter
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