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Speaker’s Corner: do rural communities need a wireless lifeline?

Mobile News
December 21, 2020

With the government downgrading its full-fibre rollout pledge, it’s time to look at wireless as a viable connectivity alternative for rural areas, says Cambium Networks’ Nigel King

In his 2020 spending review last month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak reduced the government’s investment in rural broadband from £5 billion to £1.2 billion and also watered down the Conservatives’ election pledge to deliver fibre broadband to every home in the country by 2025 to a lower target of 85 per cent.

Our government has long been focused on delivering full-fibre broadband. But it appears that the challenges of making this dream a reality have become too much. Rather than focus all of its efforts on fibre, it should instead seek alternative ways to deliver broadband to rural areas and look to other countries who have overcome the same issue for solutions and learn from their approaches.

Fibre undoubtedly provides the highest connectivity speeds. But what looks good on paper isn’t always the best solution in reality. The UK’s terrain means that trenching fibre or copper quickly turns into thousands of pounds per home. With the budget slashed, an alternative has to be found – and fast. With remote working at an all-time high and Brexit meaning greater dependence on our agricultural sector, there is a real urgency to get rural communities connected.

For citizens who currently have limited or no internet connection, many would much rather have access to acceptable broadband via another means, so they can benefit from the digital economy sooner, rather than having to wait five years for full-fibre to arrive.

Is wireless the solution?

In rural areas where home density is very low, solutions such as wireless can provide service to a large area, reducing the cost per home. In fact, a single tower can provide service for a large conurbation. Not only is the cost to build a network much lower than wireline deployment, but the construction time is also significantly less. Tower equipment can be installed in a matter of days reducing the amount of time between investment and revenue generation.

An added benefit to wireless networks is its high capacity. Wireless networks can be designed to simultaneously support downloading of streaming video, uploading of video surveillance information, voice calls, and data sharing. This means the solution is also suitable for rural businesses such as those using smart farming techniques that require this level of connectivity.

In the past, wireless networks have been deemed as insecure. That simply is no longer the case. Now, wireless networks can use specified frequencies for public safety. Access networks can be configured with password authentication that meets PCI compliance standards for secure transactions.

How to make rural wireless broadband a reality

To provide high-quality rural service quickly, reliably and cost-effectively, it is necessary to leverage fixed wireless point-to-point (PTP) and point-to-multipoint (PMP) broadband technologies.

To roll out rural wireless broadband, a remote Point of Presence (POP) site needs to be established initially. Then, by using PTP wireless bridges it is possible to extend the network’s presence over long distances to ensure the full breadth of the required area. Using PTP wireless bridges ensures high capacity and throughput with dynamic spectrum optimisation for ultimate reliability over a long distance.

In addition, it is possible to provide cellularised 360-degree coverage from nodal points within the wireless infrastructure. These nodal points can provide business and structural areas with connectivity over difficult topology commonly round in rural locations. By using modern high reliability point-to-multipoint systems, fibre speeds can be delivered to each premise at low cost.

In rural locations, reliability is critical. Therefore, to improve the ability to find any potentially problematic faults in the system, cloud-based wireless network managers should be used to provide the ability to view detailed network analysis and real-time monitoring.

What can we learn from other countries?

In other European countries, such as Italy or the Nordics, where a large chunk of the population live in mountainous areas, often a fixed wireless solution is used as a preferred alternative to fibre as a lower cost, high-reliability solution. Fixed wireless now has low-cost products available which give higher speed capability than fibre over 1km range. The USA government is now investing $15 billion in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) in order to ensure the rural population have broadband. Should we not replicate their approach at home?

If the government stops focusing on fibre for one minute and considers wireless as an alternative, there is a far higher chance of them being to hit the new targets they have proposed. Given the enormous social and economic benefits that broadband can provide, time is of the essence.

Nigel King is CTO at Cambium Networks, which provides wi-fi, IoT and fixed wireless broadband for enterprises.

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