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Closing the Digital Divide in the UK – Fibre and Millimetre Wave

Openreach is an ambitious scheme to deliver “full fibre broadband to the nation” throughout the UK. And given the program’s roots in the former monopoly British Telecom, there has arisen a great deal of concern amongst the hundreds of competitive broadband service providers in the UK about their ability to compete against the “onslaught.” However, “full fibre” to the home is never what it seems and there are proven, more cost-effective Gigabit-speed wireless alternatives to fibre.

To deliver Gigabits to the home or business via a wireless network, there is really only one way to go – and that’s by using the vast swaths of interference-free spectrum available in the high mmWave bands. To be clear, these are not the same mmWave bands the MNOs talk about when delivering 5G services, which are much more expensive to use when contemplating a fixed wireless access (FWA) service. Indeed, one such band has been proven so effective that Facebook decided to use it in the establishment of the Terragraph FWA ecosystem and service – and more on that later.

Today hundreds of service providers around the world are connecting millions of residential and business customers using the mmWave V-band (60 GHz) and E-band (70 / 80 GHz) frequencies to deliver Gigabit-speed services. It is well established that setting up a wireless network is always less expensive and faster than trenching fibre in both green field and brown field situations. In some brown field areas, it is simply not possible to lay fibre due to historic zoning restrictions, various insurmountable physical obstacles or because the disruption of trenching to day to day activities. Part of the cost advantage lies in the great strides equipment providers such as Siklu have made in making their equipment easier to install. With advanced software planning tools and either in-person or online assistance, Siklu has significantly streamlined the process of first establishing the network and then connecting customers to it. This ability addresses situations where skilled labor may be hard to secure.

Using the V- and E-bands to create a “Gigabit wireless access” (GWA) network is so effective that those bands are sometimes referred to as “wireless fibre.” Indeed, there is no denying that there is already a vast fibre footprint in some areas – and mmWave equipment is a perfect complement to fill in gaps and provide the “last 500 meter” connections. And where there is a minimal fibre presence, the bands have the range to tap into a fibre PoP up to 10 kilometers away to deliver GWA to neighborhoods and communities that otherwise may have to wait years for Gigabit-speed services, as noted even on the Openreach website:
“Ultra-reliable, gigabit ready Full Fibre broadband will be available to another 3.2 million homes and businesses in the hardest to reach rural and urban parts of the UK by the mid 2020's.”

Therefore, in urban, suburban and rural areas, service providers have a real opportunity to use GWA to create a “first mover” advantage – secure customers, provide excellent, reliable service and customers will be reluctant to switch.

And now, getting back to Terragraph, the service is now rolling out in the UK and ramping up rapidly. Part of the Facebook Connectivity initiative, Terragraph is a technology that operates in the 60 GHz unlicensed band delivering fibre-like speeds. In markets where fibre access to consumers is cost prohibitive and slow to deploy due to factors such as permitting, trenching etc., Terragraph can be a better alternative to provide fibre-like connectivity at a significantly lower cost. It’s also much faster to deploy and can be brought to market in a matter of weeks.

According to the studies by UKWISPA, the average cost for a rural property in the UK to gigabit enabled service is £7,000. Obviously, there are some properties that will be lower, but also a large proportion of properties where costs can run in the tens of thousands of Pounds, and in some situations these costs can rise above £100,000 when deploying traditional fixed fibre.

Terragraph was set up in a way to continuously drive down costs by creating an industry standard solution (based on IEEE 802.11ay) from chipsets to network equipment and customer-premises equipment. By establishing a single standard, multiple suppliers can participate, and service providers do not have to worry about interoperability issues. All of which makes it easier to establish the volume production levels needed to drive down costs.

Fibre broadband projects like Openreach have been around for years, established fibre networks are not going anywhere and will grow incrementally over time. However, service providers of all sizes can leverage this footprint to establish GWA networks that match the speed of fibre and will overcome the logistical and economic hurdles of the “last mile (or kilometer).” All the while signing up customers months or years ahead of when OR will make an appearance. A huge potential market that is up for grabs, and mmWave is the fastest way to this market.

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