Community Broadband and BDUK-can it work? -
With the recent announcement by BDUK (Broadband Delivery UK) that the first tranche of the £830 million promised for delivering super-fast broadband, things now start to get interesting. £50 million is up for grabs and the Government has basically said it’s up to local communities, through their local authorities, to come up with ideas and apply for the money. Whether using local authorities is the best vehicle, we’ll see (I though the idea was to give power to the people and cut through the local bureaucracy) but they had to start somewhere. Personally, I would have thought using the local community councils would have been better.

The irony is this-those big councils/authorities will already have access to superfast broadband (lets aim high here and say anything greater than 20Mb/secs is superfast) so it’s the outlying areas, the more rural sort of places we are talking about. Basically where the likes of BT and Virgin either never built or don’t see as immediately profitable. Which in turn will be more technically challenged. You only need to look at the 4 BDUK pilot sites to see that.

Which leads me to those technical challenges. You either go one of two ways-wired or wireless. Wired (cable, fibre optic, copper) is the more long term and feasible way to go because it’s a lot more future proof). Wireless (Wi-Fi) is cheap and relatively easy to install. Wireless also includes the mobile operators but you only need to look at the recent debacle in London with O2 and Iphone users, to see that those chaps are now looking at Wi-Fi to offload the data costs of upgrading their cell systems. The system can’t cope with the amount of bandwidth that hungry smartphones desire. However, wired has an awful lot of up front costs in laying the cable (even if BT go down the fibre to the home route).Wireless is limited (although the review of the 800Mhz spectrum could go a long way to improving things) as it’s an unregulated spectrum, it’s very crowded and has limited distance capabilities).

So what do these local communities do? It all depends on their aspirations. Local people need to decide what they want to do before embarking on this brave new world. The Government defines superfast broadband as > 2Mb/secs. Which is pitiful when you consider that none of the big players now market such a service. Indeed, Virgin dropped it some 2 years ago! If your looking for that sort of speed, I would suggest wireless is the way to go. Anything higher, the limitations of the physics of radio, shared amongst many, start to come in to play and you need to go wired. But wired means ducts, or digging up roads, street cabinets, commercial power, battery backup, local road laws, wayleave-the list goes on and on. Even if you manage to get access to BT ducts, it still will be a long slog. If it was that easy, we would have done it years ago. There is also a perverse irony in the wired/wireless argument-most people in the home use a wireless network but it is brought to them via a wired connection. If you are out of the main broadband areas, the differences in speed between a wireless connection from a street light, or in your home router, start to shrink. But I digress. Ofcom also worry, or should, that in the gold rush for superfast broadband, they end up with a UK that has lots of different technologies and solutions ton what is a common problem.

For me, it’s not the local solution that will be the roadblock-it’s the backhaul. That is, use whatever means to connect communities (I’m trying to get a small wireless network up and running in my area-more out of interest than anything else) but where does the fat pipe come from? Wired will involve the BT route above which, in 99.9% of cases, doesn’t bare thinking about and will be beyond the capabilities of most (though not all), so wireless seems appropriate. My town has about 7,000 people-with about 12 strategically placed mesh transmitters/receivers, with dynamic routing, and  I could blanket the town. 

I don’t think it would be hard to find 12 people who would let me put an aerial on the roof and access to a power socket in the loft. Indeed, with the local authority help, there are enough of their buildings where this could be the case. We have a lot of people in outlying areas (farmers and rich people J ) where wireless would be ideal, through P2P (point to point radios), and most probably increase their broadband speeds. Again, ironically, it’s probably those who need it the most. That backhaul would need to be a minimum 1Gb/sec, upgradeable, to satisfy the needs of local people. The counter argument is if all your aiming for is 2Mb/secs, then you don’t need this but it really is a pitiful speed-one stream of BBi Player and your maxed out. This is the part that needs an answer, not the local bit. So far, I’ve not seen this. People are concentrating on how to connect people-that is easy, with wireless.

Unfortunately, this is where you need a big player, with wired connections. Which usually means BT, and/or a service partner/provider. It also costs a fortune. Which means we are back to the beginning again. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out, and what/where/how the money can be spent on. I hope that BDUK will help in this part as the local part is the easy bit.

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