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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 11:06 GMT
'How we tuned in to radio broadband'
By Russell Merryman
BBC News Online

BT's announcement that it is now testing radio broadband as a way of connecting rural communities is a little late for some.

Radio broadband node receiver
The node receiver is like a TV antenna
A few rural towns have already "gone-it-alone" to secure broadband access after finding smaller companies to provide the service, at prices similar to the major names.

I am one of around 70 households and businesses who now have the benefit of an always-on, high-speed connection, through a small aerial on my roof, a device smaller than an ordinary television aerial.

Ledbury in South Herefordshire was one of many who were told by BT that it needed a commitment from 400 potential customers before they would upgrade the local exchange.

Looking elsewhere

The petition was launched, and while the response was good, it was not enough for BT and the broadband enthusiasts began to look elsewhere.

In December 2002, a Gloucester-based company - Loop Scorpio - agreed to put a wireless system in to Ledbury. After a series of tests, the first customers "went live" in May 2003.

The system uses a standard landline, ironically from BT, to bring the service into the centre of Ledbury from where it is distributed using a series of wireless "nodes" around the town.

The aerials are unobtrusive and sit on the roof or the side of the house, in line of sight to the nearest node. The nodes have a second, slightly larger aerial to redistribute the signal.

Like everything though, it is not trouble-free. It occasionally goes off, usually because of problems with the main BT pipe. Fortunately these incidents are rare, and can happen on any broadband service
I applied to become a "node" in the autumn of 2003, and the equipment was installed in October. The work took about five hours, but for a non-node client, it is much quicker.

I now have always-on, high-speed access to the internet. The effect on my surfing has been profound and I no longer look at the clock or my phone bills.

Video downloads faster and are higher quality, e-mails and instant messages are sent all the time, we can play online games, there is no waiting for dial-up.

On a more sublime note, we can now use the phone when we want instead of waiting for someone to get off the internet.

My three-year-old daughter enjoys having stories read to her in real-time on the CBeebies site rather than having to wait for each page to load. The competition for access is likely to become more of an issue as my kids get older.

The sharing process, or contention, means speeds can vary.

But in my experience the connection rarely falls below 128Kbps, three times the normal speed of dial-up, and is usually around 500Kbps, making it much faster than ISDN and even ADSL for most of the time.

Another advantage of wireless broadband is that it is symmetric, so speeds are roughly the same in both directions.

This means that online gaming is real-time and updating the website of my son's football team is quick and easy compared to dial-up.

Occasional niggles

Like everything though, it is not trouble-free. It occasionally goes off, usually because of problems with the main BT pipe. Fortunately these incidents are rare, and can happen on any broadband service.

Late at night or at weekends, when more content is downloaded and more people are on the system, speeds can drop. But even this can be controlled to some extent according to the service provider.

Broadband radio receiver
A 'squarial' fits onto the house
The company now offer an option for a "lite" service based on how much data you actually use, which has the attraction of a lower monthly fee if you do not download huge amounts of content.

There is also the issue of security. I had to install a firewall, although this was relatively easy and I chose to do it using a router which came with the necessary software, rather than setting up a separate firewall on each of my two PCs.

Another advantage is that locally, the system can effectively be viewed like a large intranet, and the service providers have installed another firewall around the whole town, doubling the security.

It also means communication within Ledbury can be at speeds of up to 10Mbps, which in future could be used for services like community television.

For me the introduction of the radio broadband system has been a boon and working from home is now a realistic option.

Businesses and other residents in Ledbury are also feeling the benefits. Our service provider has put a similar system into Highnam in Gloucestershire, and are about to go live in two other rural towns, Newent and Painswick early next year.

Ironically in the last month, Ledbury reached the trigger point of 400 set by BT and they plan to upgrade the exchange soon.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the competition arrives and how it compares to the local service we already have.


SEE ALSO:
BT tunes into 'radio broadband'
17 Dec 03  |  Technology
UK hits 3 million broadband mark
11 Dec 03  |  Technology
Build it and they may not come
14 Nov 03  |  Technology
Broadband heads for islands
06 Oct 03  |  Scotland
Making rural broadband a reality
17 Oct 03  |  Technology
All of UK on broadband 'by 2005'
17 Nov 03  |  Technology
Rural dwellers 'to bridge digital divide'
22 Jul 03  |  Northern Ireland
DIY approach urged for rural broadband
30 Oct 03  |  Technology


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