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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
Wi-fi boost plan for rural areas
Wi-fi access in coffee shops is increasingly common
Rural areas could benefit from proposals to boost the power of signals used in wi-fi networks.

Regulator Ofcom wants to deliver broadband access to parts of the UK with no high-speed internet.

James Saunders, chief marketing officer of wi-fi firm The Cloud, said the plans could bring broadband to rural areas for the first time.

Limitations on the strength of wi-fi signals make it expensive to deploy such networks outside of urban areas.

Mr Saunders said: "We welcome the consultation from Ofcom.

"We think it could provide great opportunities in rural areas that are currently without broadband. It makes it much more possible to put up a wireless network."

Boosting power

Boosting the power of wi-fi signals would dramatically reduce the cost of bringing wireless networks to rural areas because fewer transmitters would be needed.

In the States you can broadcast signals 10 times the power that you can in the UK and Europe
James Saunders, The Cloud

Ofcom is currently consulting on three proposals:

  • boosting the power of wireless signals in all parts of the UK
  • limiting that power increase to rural areas only
  • a balance of the first two plans incorporating a code of collaboration to minimise signal interference.

    Many towns and cities in the UK now offer wi-fi access outside of the home at hotspots in cafes, pubs and libraries.

    But there are no city-wide seamless networks - called mesh networks - that let people roam freely from hotspot to hotspot with uninterrupted internet access.

    One of the obstacles is the cost of deploying wireless transmitters to establish such meshed networks.

    Roll out

    Cities in the US are beginning to roll out mesh networks, in part because demand is higher, but also because the country allows more powerful wireless signals.

    Google is currently testing a mesh network in Mountain View, California, that will be free to users.

    Selina Lo, chief executive of home wi-fi antenna firm Ruckus which is working with Google, said: "With lower power you have to use a lot more access points to form the network.

    "A typical network will have hundreds or low thousands of access points. If you have power limits, these nodes have to be closer together and you need a lot more nodes."

    Ruckus has developed a wi-fi antenna for the home to help customers connect to city networks.

    Ms Lo said: "People running city networks know that the wi-fi in customers' home equipment is not powerful enough to do an outdoor long range connection.

    'Bridge connection'

    "Our device is designed to bridge that connection."

    But there are fears that boosting the power of wi-fi signals in urban areas of the UK could lead to interference between devices.

    "US hotspot operators are experiencing significant interference in this band," firms consulted by Ofcom reported.

    "In the States you can broadcast signals 10 times the power that you can in the UK and Europe," said Mr Saunders.

    "Metro wi-fi is more of a US phenomenon. In Europe because of power limitations metro wi-fi will follow more slowly," said Ms Lo.

    The Cloud has recently deployed a city network in Manchester which covers 20 different streets of the centre.

    Network access

    But users cannot walk between the streets with uninterrupted network access as they could in mesh networks being deployed across the US.

    Mr Saunders said The Cloud was committed to mesh networks in the future but said "a number of factors are needed to make mesh networks economical".

    The company is currently working with the Corporation of London to deploy a mesh network in the City.

    "We are building according to demand in the marketplace," he said.

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