Homes on the Isle of Arran, which is the largest island in the Firth of Clyde (Scotland), look set to become the first in the UK to get a faster broadband connection via White Space technology. This harnesses the gaps in radio spectrum that exist between Digital Terrestrial TV channels (470-790MHz).
At present quite a few homes and businesses on the Isle of Arran still struggle to achieve a broadband download speed of much above 0.5-6Mbps (often less during peak times), although the on-going Digital Scotland roll-out of “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) connectivity with Openreach (BT) does look as if it can reach 85-90% of the Isle.
However the FTTC/P roll-out will still leave some big gaps, such as around Sliddery, Kilmory and Corriecravie (this may change with future contracts). But a potential solution has been put forward via the unusual combination of UK Internet domain registrar Nominet and rural broadband advisor firm Broadway Partners. Sony and Microsoft also have some involvement, related to equipment and software.
The fix involves White Space (aka – TV Whitespaces) technology, which after a long period of difficult development was finally opened up by Ofcom for use in 2015. The name refers to the gaps that exist between radio spectrum in the Digital Terrestrial TV bands (470MHz to 790MHz), which are intended to help minimise the risk of interference between channels but can also be harnessed to deliver data.
All of this sounds simple enough, except TV channels and spectrum assignments change all the time, which has made the technology difficult to develop and requires a special online database in order to help keep track of any changes (otherwise white space communication services could end up harming TV reception).
In theory this low frequency spectrum can deliver good coverage over a very wide area, but in practice the performance hasn’t always been ideal. An early trial of White Space Broadband technology by BT, which was conducted on the Isle of Bute in 2012, delivered speeds of 14Mbps (TCP) and 23Mbps (UDP) at up to 2km from the base station.
However the trial also found that throughput rates decreased beyond 2km, but are generally still very usable at up to 5km. We recall some reports suggesting that 4Mbps was achieved when 6km away from the transmitter (the mast itself can usually be quite tall, albeit thin). BT ultimately gave up on the technology as a solution for rural broadband delivery.
Naturally that was an early trial and the technology has since improved, although the limited spectrum and complexity of management does impose some restrictions. Cost was initially another issue because there wasn’t as much competition or choice of hardware in this fledging field of wireless communication.
Never the less the Isle of Arran should be among the first to see a commercial deployment of White Space Broadband, which promises to deliver speeds of between 25Mbps (2Mbps upload) and 35Mbps (3Mbps upload) to around 5,000 people on the island from £25 to £35 per month respectively (there’s no mention of any usage limits). Installation normally costs £200 (one-off), but the Government’s rural focused “Better Broadband” subsidy scheme can make this FREE.
Michael Armitage, Founding Director of Broadway Partners, said:
“TV white space has proved its mettle, cutting through hard to reach rural forested areas on Arran which, in fixed wireless terms, is pretty much unheard of. This technology will be a powerful tool in the drive to deliver affordable broadband access for all communities throughout Scotland and abroad.”
Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet, said:
“The Arran rollout shows that TV white space can reach places that other technologies cannot, and paves the way for further deployment of this dynamic spectrum management technology. It’s fantastic to see our proven expertise in new technologies like TV white space is now providing the key building block to help remote areas to finally get online.”
According to the Connect Arran group, the first installation of the technology on the island by Broadway Partners began in June 2016 and covers the whole of Machrie (this includes the Shiskine valley). So far 25 houses are receiving wireless broadband from the Arran Broadband Company, although future coverage plans remain unclear and likewise there’s zero information about its funding / project cost.
No doubt others will be keeping a keen eye on this approach, but without more details about its funding, real-world performance and expected coverage targets then it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions. Several existing Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks already seem able to deliver a similar, albeit less complicated, solution and coverage for a similar sort of price.
UPDATE 11th Nov 2016
We found a related video on the above deployment.