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White Space Tech Brings Wireless Broadband to Isle of Arran in Scotland

Thursday, November 10th, 2016 (8:28 am) - Score 2,532

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).

white space tv wireless database

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.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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12 Responses
  1. Narrowband of the Shires says:

    There is certainly potential for TVWS technology to offer homes and businesses in rural areas decent internet connectivity, particularly those rural areas where, up until recently, the only technology on the table was satellite broadband.

    1. MikeW says:

      I always thought of TVWS as an adjunct to FWA, rather than a “last hope other than satellite” technology.

      From the story, it looks like TVWS still needs masts at around the same kind of density as FWA; the advantage to TVWS coming from NLOS. I imagine that LOS properties can get better performance and capacity out of FWA architecture, leaving NLOS properties to be supported by a TVWS antenna instead.

      When Airwave was trialling the phase 3 pilots in North Yorkshire, the aim there was to combine FWA and TVWS for comparison. I wonder what happened?

  2. Narrowband of the Shires says:

    MikeW – A TVWS network would not be dependent on masts between the TVWS base station and the premises, as line-of-sight is not required. That’s the advantage of the technology in terms of cost, environmental constraints, planning restrictions etc. To my mind, TVWS technology offers a potential solution in circumstances where fixed-line and traditionally fixed-wireless access are not a viable proposition for whatever reason(s). In such cases, TVWS technology does offer a potential alternative (for decent, not necessarily superfast connectivity) to satellite based solutions.

    1. MikeW says:

      I agree – TVWS’s selling point is for NLOS. That’s the positive.

      However, the article points out that it still needs short (up to 2km) distances, not longer: TVWS might make use of TV’s spectrum, but it isn’t going to be making use of TV’s high-power, tall-mast, long-range infrastructure.

      As it happens, 2km distances are similar to FWA.

      The downside attached to TVWS is that it doesn’t come with huge speeds, or huge capacity, so it probably can’t handle larger takeup within one village, say. Take a look at figure 5(c) in this paper (“Wi-Fi, but not on steroids”):

      Speeds of less than 15Mbps aren’t going to excite too many people. Better performance and capacity can be achieved with fairly standard 802.11ac FWA infrastructure from spectrum other than the 2.4GHz WiFi (which is also shown in figure 5(c) in that document).

      That’s why I think it works better as an adjunct to FWA. One operator, using normal LOS FWA technology for the bulk of customers on a few masts around a village (helping keep inside the 2km distances), but deployed with TVWS antenna too, to support the few (at a lesser grade of service) who cannot get line of sight.

      Your last sentence is spot-on: TVWS is a potential for decent, but not superfast connectivity, and better than satellite. But the distance limitation is significant.

    2. Narrowband of the Shires says:

      MikeW – The distances and throughput that you are referring to in the article relate to old trials which took place in 2012. Those trials used what was, in effect, first generation TVWS technology. The trials in 2012 took place before the completion of extensive TVWS R&D, by a number of different companies, relating to channel aggregation (AKA channel bonding). The advent of channel aggregation has not only significantly increased distance, but also throughput. R&D work on TVWS technology is ongoing, as pointed out on the Broadway Partners website, “with speeds set to increase in mid-2017 to around 60 Mbps TCP with the introduction of new chipsets and greater channel aggregation”. Regarding the link that you have provided, that relates to old research which is now well and truly past its sell-by date.

    3. MikeW says:

      I agree that research is old, but until I can find something newer it will have to do.

      Channel aggregation, I agree, can help with speed/capacity. But, like 4G’s use of CA, only when spectrum is available. As the spectrum garnered for use in TVWS comes from spectrum not used /nearby/ for TV, this can be limited where multiple TV antenna can be “seen”. I suspect that the Scottish Islands might prove to be a sweetspot for maximised spectrum availability; unlike, say, the south or midlands of England.

      I’m not sure how channel aggregation can improve range. Any links to newer research on this would be welcomed.

    4. Gadget says:

      spectrum availability produces two separate cases – if an adjacent channel is free it is much easier than if the only free channels are non-contiguous.

    5. Narrowband of the Shires says:

      MikeW – When making reference to channel aggregation, I was referring to channel aggregation in terms of increased throughput at given distances from the base station. Throughput decreases with distance. That’s why channel aggregation has been an important development in that context. The trials back in 2012 were reliant on what was available at that time. To the best of my knowledge, those trials did not include any TVWS systems that supported channel aggregation.

      The South or the Midlands would not be the top of my list in terms of assessing rurality and evaluating the potential applicability of TVWS technology. I was thinking more of rural homes and business in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Scottish Borders, Cumbria, Northumberland, North Yorkshire, Wales etc. In particular, those homes and businesses destined to be classified as being in the final 1-2% (300,000 – 600,000 premise), where up until relatively recently, satellite broadband has been touted as the only viable option.

      In terms of gaining an insight into R&D work, you will no doubt be fully aware that “the web” is not always the best place to start, as not all R&D work ends up being published and in the public domain free of charge.

      Regarding examples of commercially available TVWS systems, looking at the websites for 6Harmonics[1], Adaptrum[2] and Carlson Wireless[3] would be a reasonable starting point.

      From a personal perspective, I am encouraged by the news that there are companies out there that are prepared to strap on a pair and endeavour to make a real difference in the hardest to reach areas in terms of functional internet access.

      [1] http://www.6harmonics.com/
      [2] http://www.adaptrum.com/
      [3] http://www.carlsonwireless.com/

    6. MikeW says:

      I don’t think we have a different concept of what channel aggregation is about. Just that you said it was a solution for range; I peg it as a solution for capacity instead.

      I understand your point on research, but… there is a lot of public research going on in the UK to figure out applicability here. It might not be raw research that you’d expect of a telco, but it *is* about practical application.

      The most recent I’ve found is here:
      Oliver Holland seems to be rather involved.

      I think my point is made in the “Guildford” graph of figure 9. This particular figure shows the effect of aggregation in a number of locations; the “Guildford” graph then shows the kind of problem encountered in rural areas where multiple DTT signals can be detected (IIRC, 3 transmitters). It doesn’t leave much spectrum for TVWS, so speeds stay low – especially on the lower class devices.

      My area of North Yorkshire would be similarly afflicted – pretty much the whole vale of York would be covered by Emley Moor, Belmont and Bilsdale – a solid swathe of green on the maps at https://ukfree.tv/prediction that hits broad chunks of the rest of North, East and West Yorkshire too.

      I think You’re right that it does offer an option, and more so to people in areas further to the North and West of the UK.

      As for range … that is less obviously studied in that paper. But I’m not massively optimistic about it.

  3. Robbie The Pict says:

    Does anyone know where we are on TVWS being approved by BDUK as being NGA compliant after all this technology was meant to be part of BDUK Market Test Pilots

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I suspect that’s less an issue of technology and more an issue of which providers are actually able to deploy / use it as part of a specific bid. We don’t exactly see a clamour of operators towards TVWS solutions.

    2. MikeW says:

      I suspect it will never get a label of “superfast”.

      I put a link in a previous post to some research on TVWS. It backs up the text in Mark’s article on the relatively low speeds.

      The details for Airwave’s MTP trial in North Yorkshire were mainly focused on the FWA aspects. The TVWS aspect seemed to be a tiny add-on.

      With that in mind, I don’t think it will ever appear as a key ingredient to an NGA or BDUK bid, except where some strange local conditions help out, or more spectrum is available. Perhaps the islands off the west coast of Scotland offer just such conditions.

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