UK Broadband plans 'portable' service

Wi-Fi and 3G could have a new rival, if the Netvigator service is offered on a PC Card

UK Broadband, which launched the first phase of its high-speed wireless service in the Thames Valley on Thursday, is working on a second product to give its customers limited roaming ability.

The company's chief executive, Mike Butcher, said on Thursday that UK Broadband is planning to launch a PC Card version of its service in November this year. This won't give the user the full mobility that is possible with 3G, for example, but it will support remote working away from the office or home.

"The PC Card version of our service will support portability, rather than mobility," said Butcher. "Mobility needs very complex, soft hand-off algorithms to cope with a user moving from one base station to the next, and we don't have that."

UK Broadband's service, called Netvigator, has put its base stations on existing mobile phone masts for its 3.4GHz network. As such, a user with the PC Card version of UK Broadband's service would only be able to maintain an uninterrupted connection if they kept within the coverage area of a single cell.

At present, Netvigator's users are supplied with a wireless modem that requires its own power supply, rather than drawing power from a PC's USB port. The PC Card version may be lower power, relying as it does on the laptop's power supply and operating in a more limited environment.

This PC Card version of Netvigator, though, would appear to allow customers to use their "home" broadband connection anywhere that UK Broadband offers its service, rather than having to buy a second service such as Wi-Fi to get mobility.

According to Niall Murphy, chief technical officer for The Cloud -- the UK's largest Wi-Fi operator -- the service being offered by UK Broadband is an excellent way of competing with fixed-line DSL and cable broadband services. However, he does have reservations about its ability to allow people to work on the move.

"The challenge will be whether this is cost-effective," said Murphy, pointing out that it could be prohibitively expensive to manufacture PC Card versions of this relatively new technology.

Butcher said on Thursday that UK Broadband may offer a voice-over-IP service in the future. This kind of application, though, wouldn't be ideal for a network that couldn't cope with hand-offs as a user moves around.

"Any application that needs you to be stateful at all times and keep the same IP address, such as VoIP and video conferencing, will break," warned Murphy.

There's also some confusion over exactly what technology UK Broadband is using. Butcher said that the company's network uses 802.20. This is a mobile wireless broadband specification that has not yet been ratified, but Butcher insists that it is still ready for commercial use.

According to a senior member of UK Broadband's technical staff, though, the network does not actually run on 802.20.

"They may be using one of several technologies that are being pushed as a possible 802.20 standard. As long as it works, does it really matter?" asked Dean Bubley, founder of analyst group Disruptive Analysis.