Wi-Fi Cloud could be silver lining for rural broadband

Inspired Broadcast Networks is rolling out 3,000 Wi-Fi hot spots this year, and it's looking into ways of connecting them to community wireless networks

The company that has just launched the most ambitious rollout of Wi-Fi hot spots in the UK believes it could also play a role in closing Britain's broadband divide.

Addressing a conference of broadband activists last week, a senior executive at Inspired Broadcast Networks explained that his firm would be happy for community broadband networks to be connected to its wireless hot spots -- a way of bringing high-speed Internet services to places without access to broadband.

Inspired Broadcast Networks caused a stir earlier this month when it announced that it was planning to launch 3,000 wireless LAN hot spots this year, forming a network it calls The Cloud. Many of these Wi-Fi hot spots will be based in pubs, as Inspired Broadcast Networks is planning to connect its wireless equipment to gaming machines that already have a broadband connection.

Niall Murphy, technical director of The Cloud, told the Hardcore Wireless Event -- a seminar organised by Digital Dales -- last week that these Wi-Fi hot spots could be an effective way of bringing high-speed Internet services to parts of the UK where cable broadband and ADSL aren't widely available.

"Once we have established a presence in a community we see an opportunity to extend our network -- by providing facilities to other Wi-Fi network operators. It's something we're actively looking at," explained Murphy.

Murphy added that Inspired Broadcast Networks was working on a "hot spot in a box" product for people who think there is real demand for wireless broadband in their area.

"What we can provide is a mechanism where someone who has a business case for a wireless network can add it to our Cloud," Murphy said. He added that his firm would be prepared to work with community broadband projects on issues such as shared facilities and billing.

In many parts of the UK, activists are keen to set up high-speed wireless networks to serve those who cannot get broadband. Although it is now relatively easy to set up a 802.11b community network -- by using Locust World's MeshAP product, for example -- there is still the problem of securing a high-speed connection to the Internet that can then be shared by the network's users.

Most of The Cloud's hot spots will use a DSL connection, in which case they will be situated in parts of Britain where BT has upgraded the local exchange. Even in these situations, though, wireless could still be a solution for people who live too far from the exchange or whose line is too poor quality for ADSL.

In places where DSL and cable broadband isn't available, Inspired Broadcast Networks will use leased lines or even satellite -- and it is at these locations where there is the greatest need for innovative wireless solutions.

BT's ADSL network currently covers around two-thirds of the UK population. Further rollout is being conducted through its registration scheme, where local exchanges have been set 'trigger levels', which show how many people have to sign up for broadband before ADSL will be brought to their area.

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