Blue-sky broadband: how internet access could get even faster

Super-fast internet access is on its way, but we may have to rewire Britain first. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports on a rival plan to do away with cables and beam the web into our homes - from airships

For anyone who has sat staring at a computer screen, waiting for an internet video clip to download, it will come as no surprise that Britain is not exactly the web-speed capital of the world. And as more and more of us sign up for the fastest services we can find, the problem is set to get worse. Chatting to friends on webcams, playing complex networked computer games, shopping for music - the internet already promises so much that can be spoilt by a sluggish connection or even a momentary drop-out.

And so, this week, a series of discussions will take place, with experts from across Europe seeking to find a long-term solution to the problem. It will be hosted by a team of researchers at the University of York who have already developed a bold new approach. Dubbed the Capanina project, the team has a vision of delivering super-fast broadband to even the most remote parts of Britain using neither cables nor satellites but airships, balloons and unmanned solar-powered planes.

"The speeds that are available in the UK are lagging a long, long way behind other European countries," says Ian Fogg of JupiterResearch, which recently predicted that three-quarters of UK households will be connecting to the web via broadband by December.

Technically, the fastest speed that it would be possible to offer in Britain today is 24Mb per second, but generally the best that most people can get is around 8Mbps - and if you're a long way from the local telephone exchange, or if the wire that connects you is of poor quality, your downloads will be coming through at some way off that speed. The average French surfer, on the other hand, is whizzing around cyberspace with 24Mbps as standard.

The problem is one of infrastructure. To bring us broadband, telephone exchanges have been updated, but connection speeds are hamstrung by the quality of the existing wires that lead to our homes. So what about upgrading the telephone wires - wouldn't that be the best solution to providing high-speed internet? Free, the Paris-based broadband provider and subsidiary of telecom firm Iliad, certainly thinks so. The firm is planning to spend €1bn (£670m) on replacing existing copper wires and running high-speed fibre-optic lines to four million French homes by 2012. Fibre-optic lines typically deliver speeds of up to 100Mbps, which would leave today's broadband at the starting-gate.

Fibre-optic wire is made up of strands of glass wrapped in a plastic sheath. It carries signals in the form of light rather than as electrical impulses. It's not a new invention, and has criss-crossed many countries' backbone networks for decades, connecting high-end business users, but wasn't rolled out to homes due to cost. Copper was used instead, which was fine for delivering phone signals but has been stretched to the limit.

BT is putting fibre-optic lines into new housing developments where construction companies are digging water, gas and other utility trenches that can easily accommodate it, but the company isn't prepared to run these lines out to existing copper-wired homes. Instead it is concentrating on improving its use of copper by deploying variations of broadband that can deliver speeds of between 24 and 50Mbps, or even as fast as fibre optics in some cases.

But just as the laptops we buy one year so often need upgrading the next, so the demands on our infrastructure often race ahead of expectations. Will the broadband of the future really need to be just three times as fast as it is today? The researchers at project Capanina think not. Their proposed aerial system promises not just an alternative to the expense of laying new cables. It's aiming for data rates of up to 120Mbps - a blistering 2,000 times faster than a dial-up modem and 200 times faster than the initial wave of wired broadband.

In the Capanina plan, the balloons, airships and drone aircraft - collectively referred to as high-altitude platforms, or HAPs - will do the job of wires. Test flights have already shown that the scheme can deliver fast internet access to remote areas and even moving trains. The HAPs would hover at an altitude of around 20km - in the stratosphere, well above the flight paths of aircraft and substantially below orbiting satellites. Fortunately, if the HAP in question is an airship there would be no danger of it fireballing and crashing to earth like the Hindenburg, as it would be filled with helium instead of hydrogen, which is highly flammable when mixed with air. HAPs would also be environmentally friendly. Unlike satellites (often used to provide broadband to remote areas), HAPs don't need fuel-guzzling rockets to get them off the ground and the electrical equipment on board runs from solar panels on top of the craft.

Clearly, people in rural and other areas unable to receive broadband have the most to gain from the high-capacity wireless coverage that would be provided by HAPs. At the moment, they have the option of receiving broadband via satellite, but HAPs beat satellites on a number of counts: they can serve 1,000 times the number of users in a given area that satellites can, and they would be able to handle far greater levels of data. This is because HAPs would be closer to the ground than satellites and thus could make greater use of the radio spectrum. Plus there would be a good deal less data-loss than you get with satellites, which means you wouldn't need a large antenna on your house - a very small one would work fine.

"The central issue is getting HAPs to be reliable and economic," explains Tim Tozer, leader of the Communications Research Group at the University of York and a member of the Capanina project. "So far it is not proven that this can be done and there is still a long way to go, especially on long-endurance vehicles such as airships. But once this problem is cracked, then we could see the whole country gaining access to very high-speed internet services using this technology."

Up until now, the Capanina project has only tested its technology using balloons. So what are the chances of seeing a fully-fledged HAP get off the ground and into the stratosphere any time soon? Dr David Grace, also from the University of York and another key figure in the Capanina project, has high hopes that visitors will be able to see an HAP hovering over London during the 2012 Olympic Games. "The technology is largely there, it's just a question of putting together the different pieces," he says. "The good thing about our project is that it's platform agnostic, which means we can pick whatever vehicle we feel is suitable."

And if in a decade's time we need even higher-speed connections, the infrastructure can be upgraded just by replacing the transmitters on the HAPs, rather than having to dig up, say, a billion pounds' worth of fibre-optic cables.

Airships are the long-term goal of the Capanina project, but as yet there aren't any in production of the size required. In the meantime, the project is looking at unmanned planes designed to fly in the stratosphere. "So long as you can put on the communications payload, you can provide the services," continues Grace. "Our aim is to turn this from a research project into a commercial project, and that's not so far off for short-term missions."

Only time will tell whether broadband airships will be hovering over every region of Britain in the next 10 years. What is certain is that the new breed of communications, delivered from the stratosphere, is a technology to watch.,

Today's best high-speed providers

* Force 9: Well-thought-of company, renowned for being open and honest about bandwidth and speed. Offers 8Mbps as standard. Good customer support. Go for the Premier bells and whistles package at £21.99 per month.

* Eclipse: Another well-respected firm, offering speeds of up to 8Mbps. Customer support is reliable and UK-based. Look out for the full-featured Evolution or Home packages (Option 4) at £21.99 per month.

* Demon: A long-time provider of internet services. Offers speeds up to 8Mbps. Various extras thrown in, such as spam filtering. Look for the Demon Home 8000 package at £19.99 per month.

* F2S: Freedom2Surf offers speeds up to 8Mbps and had long been a top-rated provider. Includes e-mail and 200 megs of web space. Go for the Cascade Plus package at £23.99 per month.

* Madasafish: Responsible provider, offering up to 8Mbps. Includes free router and 20Gb a month usage. Take the Max Plus Broadband package at £19.99 per month (goes up to £25.99 after six months).

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