Rural Broadband

I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business[1].  On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other.  The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!

So here are some thoughts.

Policy Confusion

Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber.  An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity.  The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.

Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal.  They need to be clear.  Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!

Anecdotal

My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004.  2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005.  Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book.  ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!

The Sword of Damocles

The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband.  We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address.  This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.

Alternative Solutions

For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband?  Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines).  Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds.  Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub.  This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.

[1] My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises.  The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.

Posted on October 6, 2010, in devon, internet. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree that “ADSL now” is a very reasonable demand, but it’s only a stopgap solution. Long-term, it’s no substitute for a proper two-way broadband link.

    Whitespace broadband is one of those technologies that promises everything, but is at least several years away from being widely available. Point-to-point wireless links, on the other hand, is a technology that’s available today – my office here in Auckland uses it, it’s faster and more robust to weather than satellite.

    I think part of the problem here is fixating on fixed links, especially fibre. BT has of course encouraged this thinking, because the last thing they want is people thinking about solutions that bypass “their” local loop completely – but there are such solutions.

  2. Having been selling satellite broadband in the past, I’m doubtful it is a viable general solution for all but the most desolate places, at least using geostationary satellites.

    Latency is a huge issue, it makes VOIP unacceptable, and these days with umpteen domains on a page, web browsing is slow. One can do all sorts of clever things to mitigate the need for round-trips, including pro-active DNS caching, and sending small requests (like DNS) via traditional phone lines, but ultimately you can’t cheat the speed of light, and a lot of deployment these days assumes round-trips aren’t THAT expensive.

    The economics has to be right. I think the problem is the government dangles carrots in front of BT, but doesn’t wield a big enough stick. If they were to force BT to offer for sale (at cost?) exchanges that weren’t up to a given technical standard (and related fibre) it might encourage some other other players into the market. Whether they would be attractive enough is hard to know, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try.

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