Charles Arthur On Technology

Broadband gains ground

The announcement by BT a couple of weeks ago that it would stop waiting for local people to express their interest before it upgraded exchanges to broadband was a relief. By summer next year, virtually all its systems should be broadband-ready.

The announcement by BT a couple of weeks ago that it would stop waiting for local people to express their interest before it upgraded exchanges to broadband was a relief. By summer next year, virtually all its systems should be broadband-ready.

There's sense in BT's move: its more recent financial results show that broadband contributed to its profits, because its availability makes existing customers stick with BT, and it produces money for the company even if people go to a rival broadband provider (as long as it's not cable), because BT provides that broadband connection wholesale.

But the move was hugely frustrating to many people who had campaigned, leafleted and held meetings in rural areas, where the prospect of broadband seemed tantalisingly close if only they could persuade enough people to go to BT's website and register their interest. Now, there are no "trigger levels" at the BT broadband site ( www.bt.com/broadband), only lists of exchanges to be upgraded.

In the absence of upgraded exchanges, quite a few local communities had set up deals with wireless providers who would hook up to a leased line and then provide wireless links, using "WiFi" (aka 802.11b, which runs at up to 11 megabits per second, but usually rather less than that), to connect to the homes and businesses of people who had signed up.

For those wireless providers it has been a tough time, because they have to both find the people who want broadband (who BT knows about, but won't tell the providers) and then to persuade them to sign up with a small company rather than a big comforting publicly-quoted telecoms company. (But at least you could expect that your phone calls to the helpline would be answered.)

But BT has also been surprisingly quiet about a next-generation broadband technology that it is working to roll out. Partly that's because it is a couple of years away, but quite probably it's also because this technology, called WiMax, has the potential to disrupt all sorts of well-laid plans. It's a broadband technology that can reach 30 miles (50km) from a single distribution point. It's wireless. And it's a lot faster than the better-known WiFi (aka 802.11b, now built in to so many new laptops).

Now, there are two sides to this as far as BT's business goes. Let's look at the potential benefits. WiMax solves the "last mile" problem of a lot of broadband installation. The problem arises because the data signals in broadband are sent at high frequencies - beyond hearing - down the phone line; over distance, the level of the signal falls off. This isn't a problem for voice frequencies (around 300Hz), but it is for those in the multi-kilohertz range. Presently the limit is about three miles of copper before the data signal becomes too degraded, although BT is working on technologies to raise this to 10 miles. Even so, plenty of people in rural areas live further than that distance from their exchange.

Enter WiMax. With this, you could serve loads of people with above-broadband speeds (up to seven megabits per second) because it is what's known as a "point to multipoint" system. In other words, it's like a mobile-phone mast - lots of people can use it at once. So, once the exchange is upgraded, there's potentially no need to worry about that copper and its old-fashioned obedience to the laws of physics.

Even better, some of the companies in the WiMax Forum - which, besides BT, includes names such as Intel, Fujitsu, France Telecom and the American operators AAT&T and Qwest - have visions of WiMax providing a mobile service, rather like WiFi hotspots now. And it's rumoured that Intel would like to get WiMax compatibility built into future laptops, because it will be a global standard, just as WiFi has been for the past five years or so.

So what's wrong with this picture for BT? A few things. First, WiMax isn't yet a standard; there's some work needed to get it to the stage where everyone agrees about precisely how it gets the data from one point to another, and manufacturers can know exactly what technical specifications to build to. Officially, WiMax is presently the IEEE standard 802.16a; but it could shift to 802.16d or 802.16e in the next couple of years.

Second, WiMax will be expensive to build for a couple of years at least. Remember how expensive WiFi gear was, back when it wasn't called WiFi? The price of that kit has probably halved since 2000. WiMax is at an even earlier stage in its development. So BT, which has accountants querying every capital spending proposal, will want to hold off putting in WiMax until the price has begun to fall.

Next, the mobile potential of WiMax, while sounding great in principle, could actually upset lots of people inside and outside BT. The company already has a busy WiFi hotspot program (though I think the prices are ludicrously high; essentially they treat would-be WiFi users as forced buyers rather than potential long-term buyers who should be encouraged).

Fast-forward to 2006 or 2007, by which time you might have "mobile WiMax" equipment available from vendors, and BT will face a quandary: should it annoy all those WiFi users by moving over to WiMax, or should it spend the money putting up parallel WiMax and WiFi systems, or what?

There's more. Assume that it does decide to use WiMax as a simple way to reach its rural customers. Now there's the problem of how to connect those customers to the WiMax signal. Rather than the nice simple in-house modem installation that its engineers have been used to, BT would have to train them to install satellite-style dishes or aerials on the outside of houses, and to align them to pick up signals transmitted perhaps from the horizon. That's going to require navigational and technical skills that haven't so far been necessary for your average wire-wrangler.

So you can see that, while WiMax is technically and technologically the complete answer to your and BT's problems of getting broadband to the furthest reaches of these islands, there are a few practical obstacles that don't yield as easily as one might hope. I'm optimistic that BT will find a way through. I have to be, though: I live more than three miles from the exchange. And that exchange hasn't even been upgraded yet. And you know what? I'd really like to have broadband at home, BT.

network@independent.co.uk

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor