In the wake of the mobile industry’s annual jamboree in Barcelona, one would be forgiven for thinking that 5G connectivity would be in the homes and palms by Easter. However, despite all the excitement around 5G, the road to widespread commercial deployment is a long and difficult one. Instead, operators are taking the much easier road of incremental upgrades to 4G networks in areas where there are obvious returns, which are almost entirely urban.
These incremental improvements are bringing benefits, but they cannot realise the vision painted by events like Mobile World Congress where every individual or business is part of a digital society with access to high-speed broadband. Achieving this will take more than incremental improvements to conventional approaches; it will be necessary to embrace a full range of diverse technologies. So, what technologies can help operators down the road less-travelled?
Fibre is the surest – and most expensive – means of delivering improvements in bandwidth. Existing efforts to get more fibre in the ground, including over the last mile, are commendable, but are insufficient to connect everyone. Operators need incentive to upgrade their existing copper or ADSL lines and lay new fibre where possible. The European Commission’s proposed revisions to network access regulation in the draft Electronic Communications Code should help achieve this.
The problem with a pure-fibre approach is that it becomes increasingly uneconomical in rural and hard to reach areas. In these areas, satellite broadband is often the best option. In recent years, operators have brought the cost of their services down enormously, while improving the available data rate using new high-throughput satellites. Satellites aren’t the only way to deliver wireless connectivity in areas beyond the reach of fibre. For example, broadband can be delivered using high-powered Wi-Fi transmitters attached to church spires and other prominent features of the rural landscape like grain towers.
To meet the need for broadband in hard to reach areas, new forms of technology are emerging all the time. A number of technology companies are currently experimenting with the delivery of broadband through a network of lightweight, solar-powered, autonomous planes – known as High Altitude Platform Stations, or HAPS – to provide infill in not-spots and supply additional capacity where the available data rate is very low. Once airborne, these planes form a network connected by lasers, and communicate with ground stations using radio waves. The planes operate at altitudes of approximately 20 km: high enough to provide service to a large area, but low enough to provide dense coverage at low latency, and are entirely unaffected by weather or natural disasters. The resulting broadband is reliable, affordable, high-speed and flexible, making it well suited to complementing existing terrestrial and satellite infrastructure or providing stand-alone connectivity.
These technologies are pushing boundaries in aeronautics, solar power, batteries, and network architecture. They can provide a high quality service to communities are that under- or even completely un-served affordably and reliably.
This diverse mix is the only way to reach a fully connected, inclusive digital society. The key to its success will be the extent to which we embrace innovative new forms of broadband delivery, alongside proven technologies. Utilising both, we can take enormous strides towards the vision offered by Barcelona, even if we don’t quite make it before Easter.
Guest blog from Matt Allison, Manager, Public Policy, Access Partnership for techUK's "Good to Great Connectivity for the UK" Week.