Mobile networks could boost rural broadband

GSM base stations and community wireless broadband networks could make excellent bedfellows

Community broadband networks in rural areas could benefit from the need for mobile phone operators to improve their network coverage, two UK companies believe.

Invisible Networks and ip.access have announced a plan to team up in a trial to show how mobile phone base stations can operate off local wireless broadband networks.

If successful, the trial could help to finance the rollout of broadband across the UK.

Invisible Networks is a company that builds community wireless networks in areas not served by cable companies or BT's ADSL network. It is currently constructing the Cambridge Ring -- a cluster of networks around Cambridge that use 802.11b to provide wireless broadband to residents and businesses.

Telecoms infrastructure manufacturer ip.access makes a range of low-power GSM/GPRS base stations, which communicate with the mobile operator's network via a broadband link to the Internet. According to ip.access they can be connected to a wide area network, a company LAN or even just an Internet connection.

Richard Nuttall, chief executive of Invisible Networks, told ZDNet that the trial aims to show mobile phone operators how they can easily improve network coverage in existing black spots.

"Initially, we are targeting mobile operators who are looking to fill in gaps in their service -- places where they don't have good coverage but where local people don't want mobile masts to be built," Nuttall explained.

According to Nuttall, local residents benefit twice over. "First, a mobile mast doesn't have to be built and second, some of the money from their calls go back into the community network," Nuttall explained.

Invisible Networks currently has community networks operating at two locations near Cambridge, with a third expected to go live within weeks. Once a further two networks are launched -- probably in six months time -- the Cambridge Ring will have been created.

The company has a leased line running from Cambridge to a central hub to the north of the city. From this hub, other leased lines link to secondary hubs in each local community. A wireless backbone, based on 802.11b, distributes the bandwidth around the area, and subscribers connect to it, again by using 802.11b.

Invisible Networks charges £29.99 per month for a subscription to the service, or £23 per month if users pay for 12 months up front.

Nuttall explained that the speed of the service is nominally said to be 512Kbps, but in practice users can use the full bandwidth of the backbone to get a much faster connection. "One of our subscribers lives in one village, but has his workplace in a second village and he is able to back up his two computers at 6Mbps using our network," Nuttall said.

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