Microwave technology could accelerate rural broadband access

Start-up French wireless communications company Bluwan has previewed microwave technology that promises to cut the cost of providing high-speed broadband to rural areas.

Start-up French wireless communications company Bluwan has previewed microwave technology that promises to cut the cost of providing high-speed broadband to rural areas.

It could also speed up the implementation of new mobile network technology such as Long Term Evolution (LTE) by providing fast, cheap backhaul to fibre-connected cellular radio masts.

Bluwan chief marketing officer Shayan Sanyal said service providers that adopted the technology could be cash-positive in 14 to 20 months, and break even in two years, given a normal customer application profile. BT aims to break even in 12 years with its present £2.5bn fibre-to-cabinet roll-out, according to its project chief Bill Murphy.

"We hope that this will change the equations that countries are using to assess the viability of broadband investment programmes," Shayan Sanyal said.

The consumer premises equipment – an antenna the size of a large yoghurt pot and set-top box – costs around €600. This price is expected to drop quickly once the designs move into volume production. But consumers may pay nothing, as service providers bundle the cost into monthly subscriptions, Sanyal said.

Building on technology developed by defence electronics firm Thales to reduce friendly fire incidents, the system, Fibre Through The Air (FTTA) can deliver up to 12Gbps per base station via a series of 10x10cm radio transmitters operating in the 40GHz band. This makes it suitable for both mobile backhaul and for broadband access networks, said Bluwan's chief R&D officer Francois Magne.

Magne, who holds the patent for the technology he developed while CTO at Thales Communication, said the specification produced speeds of 2.5Gbps in a 90 degree sector, given clear line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. This capacity can be shared by up to 20,000 consumers, with each receiving a 512kbps connection. Giving each a 1Mbps connection would halve the number of consumers, he said.

The system is highly scalable, allowing service providers to add capacity simply by adding another transmitter to the mast on a "pay as you grow" basis, Sanyal said. This massively cuts the initial capital spending needed to provide high-speed broadband to communities, compared to copper or fibre networks.

Bluwan will launch FTTA formally at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona next month. Sanyal said his primary market was telecommunications network operators. The system could support existing 2G and 3G as well as the increasingly widespread LTE and Wimax technologies at a tiny fraction of the cost of fibre, he said.

He said he had already had discussions with UK communications minister Ed Vaizey, Broadband Delivery UK, and Penrith and Borders MP Rory Stewart, who is leading the Cumbrian broadband pilot project, one of the four selected by BDUK.

He said he was especially impressed by Stewart's understanding of the technical issues that surround the roll-out of high speed broadband in the UK. Bluwan was talking to all the stakeholders involved in the four BDUK pilot studies, hoping to partner with them.

Magne said the 40GHz band used by FTTA has featured in broadband discussions because until now there was no commercial equipment that used it. Bluwan was looking for partners with access to the frequency band and others that could engineer and install suitable networks.

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