Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Are We Trying To Run Before We Can Walk

Yesterday the Chancellor announced an extra £5bn for infrastructure projects, including the roll out of broadband.  Initially, approximately £100m will be used to enable higher speeds in the capital cities of the England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  But is that really the priority in these harsh economic times.  What about the digital divide between the cities and rural areas. 

Admittedly, with the average speed of broadband under 7 Mbps it is important that we enable our broadband network to reach speeds of up to 100Mbps so that we can compete with the emerging economies of the world.  However, we seem to be forgetting the significant number of people who do not have access to even low speed broadband: those that live in more isolated areas.  Even by the end of 2014 BT will have only reached two thirds of of UK homes and businesses with its fast broadband.  And as most rely upon BT to provide the wholesale bandwidth this means it applies to majority of the broadband offerings.  This seems rather slow bearing in mind that the UK Government had already allocated £530m to encourage local authorities in this endeavour.

Perhaps the answer lies in a different direction: wireless broadband.  In the US there are already a number of providers offering broadband services using WiMAX technology.  Now with the progress on Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless offerings it would seem that mobile broadband might be available before copper based high speed broadband reaches rural areas.  Perhaps the money would be better spent helping to accelerate this infrastructure.  That's not to say that wireless broadband is without its problems - the two main US providers (Clearwire and Light Squared) have suffered from either funding problems or regulatory issues. 

And, there are those that say that with limited spectrum, demand may exceed supply before an economic return could be realised.  But, I have faith that emerging technologies will surprise many and make our use of limited spectrum more and more efficient.  After all, we have progressively managed to flow more and more data down copper links so why not wirelessly.  A good example, is the development of Cognitive Radio (CR).  Basically, CR allows a set area of the spectrum to be used intelligently so that it is used to maximum capacity.  With research in this area coming up with new and more effective algorithms as we speak I cannot believe that progress will not be rapid once the telecoms providers decide they need it.

So, maybe rather than putting in more money to just procuring the existing technologies in the hope of achieving rural coverage, and limiting superfast broadband to the cities, the UK Government might like to put a significant amount into research into these emerging techniques as a means of achieving more for less.