Can our approach to rural connectivity benefit from a wireless rethink?
15 January 2021 | Nigel King
The UK's national fibre roll out has faced several hurdles but the most recent threatens to hamper rural connectivity. Could wireless provide the solution? Nigel King, CTO at Cambium Networks examines the options
As someone who lives in a rural area, I feel a real sense of concern at recent decisions and revelations concerning the rollout of full-fibre broadband across the UK. In the November 2020 spending review, the chancellor rolled back the government’s investment in rural broadband and as a result the pledge to deliver fibre to every home in the country by 2025 was reduced to 85%.
There is no doubt that the 2025 target was an ambitious one, but it was equally a target that the industry believed it could deliver against. What has made matters worse is the reporting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which revealed that a ‘lack of effective planning’ means that the UK will not hit the revised 85% target either. In reality, this means that people in rural locations will miss out.
The focus from the government on connectivity should be welcomed. It is also worth noting that the government has communicated a desire to prioritise those homes and businesses that do not currently have access to gigabit-capable broadband, which is the correct thing to do.
Unfortunately, that does not get away from the fact that, in some cases, the current approach is creating challenges and delays that are preventing people from getting the connectivity they need to live and work. Instead of focusing purely on using fibre to deliver high-speed connectivity, the government needs to learn from other countries and the solutions they have adopted in solving this same problem.
Solving the challenge of rural connectivity is now more pressing than ever. The events of 2020 have caused people to reassess their ideas on where they want, and indeed need, to live. Property website Rightmove has seen inquiries for village properties increase by 126%. This demand is even more pronounced amongst people in some of the cities worst affected by the pandemic. Inquiries from people in Liverpool up 275%, Edinburgh 205%, and Birmingham 186%. Many of these people will expect that their broadband can support a remote/flexible working lifestyle and may find themselves very frustrated with the reality they encounter. Not only that, but Brexit is set to result in greater dependence on the UK’s agricultural sector, making better connectivity in these areas a necessity.
It is true that fibre delivers the fastest connectivity speeds. This is great in a lab, or in a policy document, but in practical terms there are other things to consider. Planning requirements, land access, the terrain surrounding rural locations, and a whole host of other considerations often conspire to make trenching fibre and copper impractical and expensive. With only a quarter of the intended funds currently available, value for money and return on investment have to become top priorities. It is also true that underserved communities value access over the very best speeds when at present their access is limited or non-existent.
In areas where home density is low, wireless solutions can reduce the cost per home by virtue of the fact that they provide service to a far wider area. A single tower is typically able to service multiple villages, whilst a large town rarely needs more than ten towers to provide reliable connectivity. 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, expediating the 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.
The argument that wireless networks are insecure no longer stands, either. Wireless networks can be designed to use specified frequencies for public safety. Access networks can be configured with password authentication that meets PCI compliance standards for secure transactions.
Bringing connectivity to the countryside
In order to realise high-quality connectivity across the UK countryside quickly, reliably and cost-effectively, both fixed wireless point-to-point (PTP) and point-to-multipoint (PMP) technologies will be required.
Through highly reliable, modern PMP solutions, fibre speeds can be delivered to multiple premises at low cost. Moreover, it is possible to provide cellularised 360-degree coverage from nodal points within the wireless infrastructure. These nodal points can provide homes, businesses and structural areas with connectivity regardless of the difficult topology commonly found in rural locations.
Firstly, a remote Point of Presence (POP) site needs to be established. 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.
Reliability is of foremost importance for these rural systems, given the digital lifeline they often provide. For this reason, and also to negate the remoteness of the networking infrastructure, cloud-based wireless network managers should be used to provide the ability to view detailed network analysis and real-time monitoring.
Learning the lessons of those gone before
The UK is not alone in facing a challenge in the form of rural connectivity. Rural communities are by their nature in hard-to-reach areas and this means that it is often difficult to make a commercial case for rural high-speed broadband. This naturally reduces the likelihood that mainstream suppliers will invest in delivering connectivity to these areas. As such, this problem can be seen across Europe, is also found in the US, and indeed most other countries around the world.
What this means is that there are examples which can be followed. In Italy and the Nordics, where rural populations are also found in mountainous areas, fixed wireless solutions have become the preferred method for delivering reliable, affordable and high-speed connectivity. Fixed wireless now has low-cost products available which give higher speed capability than fibre over 1km range. In the US, the government is now investing $15bn in RDOF to ensure rural populations can access broadband.
These examples show not only what wireless is capable of but also what practical solutions can deliver. High-speed connectivity is all but a prerequisite to participating in modern life and the government’s desire to deliver it is undoubtedly laudable. However, in order for it to become a reality a more practical approach is required. Frankly, this was true even before the recent budget cuts, but it is even more certain now. By dropping the exclusive use of fibre and looking to other alternatives such as wireless, there is a far better chance of meeting the 85% by 2025 target. Not only that, they will also deliver a social good capable of transforming local economies and creating thriving communities through new opportunities to connect with the outside world.
24 February 2021 | Stephen Manley
22 February 2021 | Steve Holford
17 February 2021 | James Hart
10 February 2021 | Virna Rizzo and Jordan Le Gallo