Will satellite help us escape the dreaded blackspots?

A guest blog by Neil Fraser, communications and information provider and leader at ViaSat UK

In March’s budget, George Osborne restated the government’s drive to push high-speed broadband across the UK: including testing satellite connections for remote communities and pledging ultra-fast, 100Mbps broadband to nearly every home in Britain.

However, broadband home internet is only one part of the equation. Last December, the government pledged mobile phone coverage for 85% of the UK’s land mass by 2017 in a £5 billion deal. While this will be more than the 69% currently covered, it doesn’t account for signal blackspots in areas that should be more than adequately serviced.

Even in London, a journey from the centre of town to the M25 can be accompanied by a wavering or even dropped signal and a consequent inability to use data services. For a nation aiming to sell itself to the world on the strength of its technology and communications, and with 4G and beyond a key part of that platform, the inability to guarantee high speed mobile broadband in the capital itself does not inspire confidence.

Who is missing out?

There are several implications of these blackspots. For the consumer, they mean interruptions to increasingly demanding online services. While five years ago, a mobile phone might have been used to check email on the move, the advent of 4G means that video and other data-intensive applications are an expected part of mobile life. If these expectations are disrupted for any reason, then confidence in mobile services, and the willingness to pay for higher speeds and more data, will fall.

For the economy, the fact that a high-speed service will be limited to only certain locations, whether the home, office or coffee shop, can be a barrier to investment. For instance, a business looking to locate within the UK will most likely make the level of connectivity available a key part of its decision process, meaning areas plagued by blackspots will regularly lose out compared to their more connected competition.

For a government that has stated the importance of investment in the regions beyond London, and is pushing the Digital By Default agenda for services to be always-available
online, ensuring that these spots are eliminated simply makes sound business sense.

Furthermore, the importance of removing these blackspots will increase as emergency services review alternatives to the existing Airwave national public safety network. If services do move from the existing Tetra-based network to a system such as cellular which provides greater access to broadband data, any blackspots will prove not just inconvenient and costly, but also dangerous.

Filling the gaps

The continued existence of blackspots is largely down to a very simple issue: not enough cellular base stations. Whilst increasing the capacity of these stations to provide 4G and beyond is one thing, increasing their range is entirely another. Similarly, placing base stations in every conceivable location to ensure continuous coverage is often impossible due to issues of cost and access. There is also the issue of what happens if a base station is damaged or otherwise inoperable; at which point a new, albeit temporary, blackspot is created.

To avoid this, other technologies must be used to supplement the existing signal and ensure that users enjoy consistent and uninterrupted speeds. For instance, Wi-Fi on the London Underground network has allowed mobile users to stay in touch both above and below the surface, regardless of local blackspots. This alone does not address every issue; anyone using the tube can testify that there will be uncomfortable periods of switching between cellular coverage and local Wi-Fi when passing through a coverage area. However, it does help to provide the start of more comprehensive coverage.

Another way to cover off coverage black spots is with satellite broadband. Once seen as a choice of last resort for users too remote to use any other form of communication, satellite has come on leaps and bounds. The advent of higher speed Ka-band satellites, such as Eutelsat over Europe, has increased network capacity from single digits to hundreds of Gigabits per second; meaning data bandwidth for services is measured in the tens of Megabits per second, rather than kilobits. Thanks to this, a satellite service can now guarantee a high speed connection to any area within its coverage, eliminating the last few blackspots. At the same time, receivers are constantly shrinking in size; and can be placed in black spot areas for little cost or direct impact in order to broadcast a signal.

What this means is that the image of satellite as an expensive, slow service that needs a vast antenna to be of use is woefully out of date. Indeed, costs to provide high-speed satellite broadband are now comparable to other high-speed services, with the added benefit of removing access restrictions.

Mixing technologies

This isn’t to say that cellular should completely give way to satellite or Wi-Fi. Essentially, there is currently no single technology that can guarantee the complete, consistent, high-speed and cost-effective mobile coverage that the 21st century demands. Instead, a combination of technologies will help ensure that all potential areas are covered and that there is redundancy in case of one or more parts of the system failing.

Using a mix of technologies means that, whether in the Orkneys or Oxford Street, mobile users will have the high-speed connection they demand.