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 broadband
The importance of improving broadband access is well recognised. The Government has pledged to provide superfast broadband (defined as 24Mbps or above) to 95 per cent of UK premises from 2018, as well as universal access to basic broadband (at least 2Mbps) from 2016. Currently, around 10 per cent 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.
Going for inventive solutions
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.
Trials on Arran saw 15Mbps broadband delivered through hundreds of metres of forest – which would be unheard of using traditional Wi-Fi. In real terms, this is the difference between struggling to load a simple webpage and being able to email and share images with family living overseas for the local residents of Arran.
Successful projects and future opportunities
Nominet has 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, a database had to be developed to perform complex calculations that tell devices what frequencies they can use in a given area, at what power, and for how long.
This database is a vital component in the initiative begun on Arran, the first TV white space commercial broadband rollout in Europe. It will soon be extended to other remote areas in Scotland and Wales, enabling connectivity for the many living in rural areas that struggle to get online. 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.
Microsoft’s pilot on the Isle of Wight back in August 2014 used TV white space to offer a better and more reliable radio service to the island’s lifeboat team. The project was a success, but it also identified the further potential of TV white space to assist such communities: with the correct technology and infrastructure, the lifeboat team could also use TV white space to transmit videos or even send data from medical machines back to base to help save more lives at sea.
No denying connectivity
Outside the UK, TV white space is also being explored as a means to connect remote areas of the developing world to the internet, when laying broadband cables is unrealistic and unaffordable. In Malawi, where the majority of the population live in rural areas, communications service provider C3 is building a nationwide network using TV white space to improve connectivity in an efficient, cost-effective way.
In an age when technology and the internet form part of the infrastructure of our daily lives, connectivity shouldn’t be denied to those with geographical or financial disadvantages. Dynamic spectrum management technology could be part of the solution to a wide scale problem, as despite the growth of the digital economy, approximately four billion people worldwide still don’t have access to the internet.
The broadband rollout on the Isle of Arran is the first step on a path to equitable internet access for all, lessening the digital divide. At Nominet, we’re finding new ways to build an internet that benefits more people, in more ways, more of the time. Dynamic spectrum management has the potential to make this a reality and we will continue to explore and develop this exciting new technology.
Russell Haworth, CEO, Nominet
Image source: Nominet / Edward O’Donnelly