Lasers in the (concrete) jungle somewhere

Every time someone gets fed up with their rural DSL or the slow pace of fibre rollout, they wonder if wireless broadband isn't the solution. I often feel like Scottie on the Enterprise ('the laws o' physics willnae take it, Cap'n').

Every time someone gets fed up with their rural DSL or the slow pace of fibre rollout, they wonder if wireless broadband isn't the solution. I often feel like Scottie on the Enterprise ('the laws o' physics willnae take it, Cap'n').   I don’t think bandwidth wants to be free any more than information does; and yes, I know the importance of that quote is the first, usually ignored half ("On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other"). I think after a few weeks of wireless-only broadband you might be just as unhappy as with your shared DSL, because wireless broadband is shared bandwidth too.   There’s three legs to the stool; coverage, spectrum and backhaul. Broadband coverage is still poor in areas outside towns (2Mb by 2010 is a paltry target for 'broadband Britain' and even that Britain’ is likely to be delayed until 2015 due to lack of funds). It's not just about letting everyone watch BBC iPlayer or play online games; rural broadband can enable creativity in a community and make it grow in a way that's key to keeping rural communities relevant - so it's bad news that it gets a raw deal on provision; but rural 3G/4G runs into the same provisioning issues.   Spectrum is a big issue for wireless broadband; recent research from Exane BNP Paribas suggests that mobile networks are likely to run out of data capacity within the next three years – and in some areas in Europe, within a year. 3G sales are dropping off in the UK, maybe because of the economy but PointTopic suggests it might be disappointment at the performance. And then spectrum; This is less of a problem for rural areas but certainly need a lot more spectrum – and while the White Space spectrum will help in 2011 and beyond, it takes time and negotiation. When I was trying to winkle details about slates out of Phil McKinney at HP and getting only his enthusiasm about a capable Web-aware OS that isn’t beholden to Google, he also commented that 2010 is going to be a bad year for mobile bandwidth.   The quickest and best fix is backhaul. When you hear about 14Mbps on your phone, or 60 or 100Mbps from LTE that’s the speed between your phone and the base station – at which point you share the backhaul, which can be as low as 2Mbps DSL today, between everyone who is using the cell. The mobile operators are reeling from the impact of people actually using 3G on just a handful of phones today; wait till everyone is doing it on every phone. BT is doing very well supplying the 21st Century network to companies like Vodafone (who puts 16Mbps of backhaul into a 14Mbps cell, but only has a few of them and charges the applicable price – a high one).   I think backhaul providers are going to be a good investment and one area that could really take off is lasers. You don’t have to dig up the streets, there are no spectrum licence issues (the wavelengths used are licence free around the world) and you can get high speeds; fSONA (a Canadian company that bought out some early research from BT) has 1.25Gbs and is about to launch 2.5Gbs connections. They’re using the 1550nm wavelength which is particularly interesting; it’s the same wavelength that undersea optical cables use and while it won’t take out passing birds or cause safety worries (it’s beyond the visible spectrum and anything over 1400 nm won’t damage the eye if you manage to haul yourself onto a roof and accidentally look into the beam) it gets around 50 times more transmission power than the 800 nm wavelength most laser backhaul providers are using. That makes it easier to get through fog (the main problem for optical laser connections – microwave connections have problems with rain and fog). Plus the connection can go further; fSONA lasers can reach 5km.   Actually, says Paul Erickson, vice president of operations at fSONA, they can reach 10km but he doesn’t want to suggest that to operators because they’ve been burned by lasers before (so to speak). Ten years ago, when everyone thought 3G was going to take off overnight and need huge amounts of connectivity and backhaul, a lot of people promised to deliver 2km optical laser connections that just couldn’t go the distance reliably. They were hand-built, custom kit and if they didn’t line up you had to take them back to the machine shop and beat them into shape. Today they’re built on a production line with replaceable modules – and they fit in better with the packet network that all the mobile operators are switching over to. Instead of the multiple E1 lines that Vodafone is putting into each 14Mbps base station that have to be bonded together, they could put in a line that can deliver as much bandwidth as they need, making the network more flexible. If optical laser providers like fSONA can show the mobile operators that the technology has grown up, it could be a valuable component for the high speed data networks we need.   Whatever technologies we pick, what we need is to bite the bullet and invest in fibre rollout to the home as well as upping the backhaul on mobile networks - finally fix the last mile whether it’s indoors or out. For years we’ve been saying that fixed and mobile operators alike need to wise up and offer more in the way of services and management to avoid turning into Big Dumb Pipes. At the moment I’m saying that they have Big down, they have Dumb down but they seem to be having a problem with that all-important Pipe bit… -Mary