For most of us, connectivity has become a way of life. Around four in five UK adults use the internet every day, or almost every day. Whether we’re collaborating with colleagues in different countries, learning how to code or speak a new language through a Massive Open Online Course, or catching Pokemon in augmented reality, technology has transformed the way we work, learn and play.
But for those in remote areas, poor connectivity means they’re missing out.
Scotland’s Isle of Arran is the largest island in the Firth of Clyde. It has plenty to boast of: beautiful scenery, the stately Brodick Castle, the Machrie Moor stone circles, and — importantly — single malt whisky. However, much to the frustration of its residents, it suffers from incredibly slow broadband. In summer, tourism can cause the population to swell from 5,000 to 25,000, compounding the problem.
The importance of improving broadband access is well recognised. The Government has pledged to provide superfast broadband (defined as 24Mbps or above) to 95% of UK premises from 2018, as well as universal access to basic broadband (at least 2Mbps) from 2016. Currently, around 10% of the population in the UK still can’t access high-speed broadband.
For those on the wrong side of the digital divide, it’s easy to get fed up. A garden centre business based in Derbyshire and Staffordshire ended up installing its own satellite, as their 1Mbps internet connection left them barely able to check company emails, and a nine minute promotional video took nine hours to upload to Facebook. After “battling for years” with a similarly slow connection, a farmer in Salisbury Plain built his own makeshift wooden telephone mast in a field, with a 4G adapter inside a toolbox at the top.
And as average speeds increase elsewhere, the gap widens. Websites become more content-rich, and internet services demand more bandwidth. To watch Netflix in HD, for example, you need a speed of 5Mbps. Industry experts forecast that the average UK household will require bandwidth of 19Mbps by 2023.
But bringing good connectivity to broadband ‘blackspots’ in isolated, rural areas can be costly and complex. It can cost thousands to dig trenches and lay broadband cables to the most remote properties, making traditional methods of internet connectivity inviable.
Back on Arran, however, an inventive solution is being rolled out. Starting in the Machrie area on the island’s west coast, Nominet and Broadway Partners are using ‘TV white space’ technology to power fast, reliable broadband coverage. TV white space refers to the parts of the wireless spectrum freed up by the UK’s switch from analogue to digital TV, completed in 2012. It can create two-way communications at high data rates over long distances, enabling Wi-Fi in large areas where wired connections would be difficult.
As anyone who has ever shifted their Wi-Fi router around their home to try and improve their connection can attest, traditional routers have a limited range, and objects like walls and furniture can impede the signals. In perfect conditions, they can only cover around 100 metres. In contrast, TV white space technology can cover an expanse of about 10 kilometres in diameter, and is much better at penetrating obstacles. Trials on Arran saw 15Mbps broadband delivered through hundreds of metres of forest — which would be unheard of using traditional Wi-Fi.
Nominet is the UK’s first qualified TV white space database operator. We’ve previously used the technology to connect a network of smart sensors monitoring river levels in flood-prone Oxford. Because the available set of TV white space frequencies varies, we’ve developed a database to perform complex calculations that tell devices what frequencies they can use in a given area, at what power, and for how long.
The initiative begun on Arran is the first TV white space commercial broadband rollout in Europe. It will soon be extended to other remote areas in Scotland and Wales. It’s an example of how innovative technology can solve real-world problems, and it’s a big step forward in getting a better deal on connectivity for rural communities.