The condemned man always talks a good fight. “Its great news,” they assure me.
Its tempting to be cynical about ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line). No, heck, its not tempting, its irresistible. I think an awful lot of people are simply going to go to the wall and just dont want to preempt the market by writing off their own chances in advance.
The upgrade of ADSL is, effectively, eliminating the distance factor. Last month you were a second-class household if you were more than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from a phone exchange; this month theyll just roll up and install 512K-bps broadband.
According to British Telecom, this takes ADSL to almost everyone. Data gathered from trials in Britain revealed that removing the limit means 99.8 percent of lines connected to a broadband exchange should now be able to get a 512K-bps ADSL service, the phone giant said in a release.
As with many stats for rural broadband—or rural anything—its not quite what it might seem. In the same announcement, BT revealed that it was now offering megabit DSL to the same people who previously qualified for 512K bps. So whats the difference?
According to the company, BT is also increasing the range for 1M-bps premium services from 4 kilometers to about 6 kilometers, which means that 1M-bps ADSL will be available to 96 percent of homes and businesses connected to a broadband exchange.
In other words, theyve extended it by 3.8 percent of households. Thats a lot of households, of course! But the trouble is, the bulk of them are in the towns. Rural communities will still be left out; the majority of the new people arent really rural. Theyre just within technical reach of a broadband-enabled exchange.
The question we cant answer is: “How well it will work?” Trial data is one thing. A working service is something rather different. For example, ADSL works pretty well over longer distances over copper wire. But quite a lot of the phone wire in the ground in Europe isnt copper—its aluminum. Where that happens, its a safe bet that some people are going to install it and find it just doesnt work.
So, is it right to say wireless rural broadband is dead then? Probably not.
Politics comes into it. For example, one of the more thoughtful analyses of the future for wireless as a way of getting the Internet to remote users came from mesh networking pioneer LocustWorld.
“Getting more broadband out there is great, whether it is by wire or wireless. Lots of mesh operators are really excited about getting DSL in to replace their satellites. Faster, cheaper, less latency, more flexibility,” summarized LocustWorld marketing chief Richard Lander.
Yes, but what about financial figures? Cheaper. But how much cheaper?
“In our case, the mesh is so efficient that operators can deliver the best value,” said Lander. “Some meshes start at well under $10 a month for a basic subscription. Others are able to get grant aid and offer basic services for free to people on low incomes. There are a lot of meshes, like Feeed in Hastings [England] and Boundless in Lewisham [London], that are really making a big difference, getting Internet access delivered to everyone. Mesh access is often price competitive with dial-up Internet, while beating ADSL for performance.”
But the price of ADSL is unrelated to the cost of providing it. The reason prices for DSL in much of Europe are at the level they are is often related to “quid pro quo” deals. For example, in Britain BT is both wholesaler and retailer. Its retail operation is very keen to cut prices. Where the typical consumer pays around $50 a month for broadband, BT Openworld would like to charge half that, or even less. But the regulator (quite rightly) sees this as a price level no other ISP could match, and so actually prevents BT Openworld from reducing prices.
But of course, even if ADSL did come down to the $7-a-month level, wireless still gets into corners that wires wont go.
So, of course, does satellite broadband. Many of the satellite-powered wireless meshes in remote areas are expecting ADSL in 2005—around the time that their satellite Internet contract comes up for renewal. “Having ADSL available gives them more competitive backhaul,” said Lander. True; so is satellite the big loser?
Perhaps not. Recent extreme weather in much of Europe has washed away cables, telegraph poles, and even underground wiring conduits. Some rural areas found themselves without phone or broadband for more than a week at a time while reconstruction was undertaken.
In those emergency situations, satellite-based wireless broadband was the only game in town. Well, not in town, obviously—in the wild.
In the light of new technology, plans to go ahead with WiMax wireless networks may have to be rephrased when carriers go to the financiers for capital. But in reality, most people in the wireless business knew this technology change was coming. It wont change as much as you might think.
Click here for more columns by Guy Kewney.