Mesh radio trial could help rural broadband

BT's latest broadband scheme, if successful, could be used to create high-speed wireless networks in small villages

BT has begun a trial of a new technology that could bring broadband to rural areas.

The telco announced on Friday that it has launched a mesh radio network in Pontypridd, South Wales, in a partnership with Cambridge-based Radiant Networks. One hundred households are to partipate in the trial, and each will get access to interactive television and video-on-demand services through a node -- or small cylinder -- placed on an outside wall.

The trial, which covers an 80sq km area around Pontypridd, will run until December 2002. High-speed Internet access will not be immediately available to triallists, but BT has said it plans to include it shortly.

Unlike some other wireless broadband services, mesh radio does not use base stations to transmit with large numbers of end-users -- the "point to multipoint" system. Instead, the nodes relay signals between each other, which means much fewer base stations are required.

As a result, mesh radio could be significantly cheaper to install than ADSL-based broadband, making it suitable for rural areas that currently suffer from a lack of affordable broadband.

Paul Reynolds, chief executive of BT Wholesale, suggested that mesh radio could widen the reach of BT Wholesale's broadband delivery: "This trial, with Radiant Networks mesh radio solution, will give us an extended look at the technology in a real-life situation and let us explore its suitability for BT to deliver broadband services in areas beyond the reach of ADSL."

Some in the industry are surprised that the mesh radio trial will not include high-speed Internet services from the start, and have suggested that BT has experienced technical problems with latency -- the time it takes packets of data to reach their destination. BT denies this. "Because this is a technical trial, not a consumer trial, we want to give the network the most robust test possible," a BT spokesman told ZDNet UK. "The amount of constant bandwidth needed by video-on-demand services is much higher than for Internet use, so we're using video-on-demand and interactive television services in the test," he said, adding that broadband Internet access will be offered soon as well.

If the trial is successful then it is likely that BT will launch commercial mesh radio networks across the UK, probably targeting rural areas such as small villages.

"The maximum distance possible between two nodes is 3.5km, so it can be a fairly loose mesh. However, really remote locations will probably have to rely on satellite broadband," the BT spokesman said.

Mesh radio operates in the 28GHz part of the radio spectrum, so BT has had to obtain a temporary test and development licence from the Radiocommunications Agency to allow the trial to take place.

Before it could offer commercial services, BT would have to invest in some 28GHz licences. It should have no trouble acquiring them.

After managing to license off only 16 (of 42) 28GHz licences in an auction process in late 2000, the government's second attempt has been even worse. The remaining 26 licences were put back on the market in October 2001, but so far not a single bid has been received.

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