Satellite push to close Europe's broadband gaps

The TWISTER project could turn today's high-speed digital divide on its head, by pushing the concept of local wireless networks linked to a two-way satellite link

Twelve companies and organisations from across Europe have teamed up in an attempt to find solutions to the region's high-speed digital divide.

By linking local wireless networks to two-way broadband satellite connections, the group hopes to develop services and applications for rural communities across the European Union, from Britain to Poland.

The TWISTER (Terrestrial Wireless Infrastructure integrated with Satellite Telecommunications for E-Rural) project was launched this month with 5m euros of backing from the European Commission.

Over the next three years, it will set up and run over 100 "validation sites" across Europe. A number of these will be located in Britain, but actual sites haven't yet been identified.

"These validation sites will support innovative applications to meet the specific needs of rural user communities in the domains of agriculture, education, community services, health care and e-business. Emphasis will be placed on the development of those usages that will benefit most from broadband access," explained the TWISTER consortium in an announcement earlier this month.

Using satellite as a way of connecting remote networks to the Internet is not a new idea, but there are relatively few examples of successful deployments. This is partly due to the problem of cost, as a two-way satellite link can be significantly more expensive than fixed-line backhaul. There is also the issue of latency, which is a particular problem for applications such as voice over IP.

The consortium is being led by EADS Atrium, a telecommunications and space exploration firm. Other partners include satellite broadband providers Aramiska and Eutelsat, reflecting the project's focus on using bi-directional satellite connections to reach areas not covered by cable broadband, ADSL or other fixed-line technologies.

"As incumbent ADSL providers continue to fail on promises of connection, demand for satellite broadband technology has never been greater. Aramiska is looking forward to working with the TWISTER consortium to catalyse the delivery of broadband throughout Europe," said Philippe Bodart, chief executive of Aramiska, on Tuesday.

The European Commission has made universal availability of affordable broadband a priority, but in every European country it is finding that there are areas where it simply isn't economic for commercial telcos to offer their services.

Several projects, such as the successful ACT NOW scheme in Cornwall, have benefited from European funding in recent years.