Start-up French wireless comms company Bluwan has previewed microwave technology that promises to slash the cost of providing high-speed broadband to rural areas to between 2% and 5% of traditional microwave and fibre networks.
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 that 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 the cabinet roll-out, according to the UK telco's project chief Bill Murphy.
"We hope that this will change the equations that countries are using to assess the viability of broadband investment programmes," Sanyal said.
The consumer premises equipment, namely an antenna the size of a large yoghurt pot and a set-top box, costs around €600. This 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 10cm square ultra-wideband radio transmitters operating in the 40GHz band. This makes it suitable for both mobile backhaul and broadband access networks, said Bluwan's chief R&D officer Francois Magne.
Magne, who holds the patent for the technology that he developed while CTO at Thales Communication, said the specification produced speeds of 2.5Gbps/MHz 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 slashes the initial capital cost needed to provide high-speed broadband to communities, compared to copper or fibre networks, he said.
Bluwan will launch FTTA formally at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, which starts on 13 February. Sanyal said the company's primary market was telecoms network operators. The system could support existing 2G and 3G as well as the increasingly widespread LTE and Wimax technologies at a 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.
Sanval added that 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 rarely 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.
FRIENDLY FIRE THE TRIGGER
Following a massive increase in friendly-fire incidents in the first Gulf War, the call went out for better technology to penetrate the fog of war and cut the casualties that soldiers on the same side inflicted on each other.
Francois Magne, then head of R&D at French defence contractor Thales Commumnications, spearheaded the development of a small lightweight radio transponder and antenna that could be carried by troops. Key to its success was a sub-second response time and transmission speeds fast enough to reduce the risk of the message being compromised.
After the system was put into the field, Thales decided that commercial exploitation of the technology was better left to others.
In 2005, with seed funding from Thales, Magne set up Bluwan to develop commercial versions of the technology. Bluwan's Fibre Through The Air (FTTA) is a carrier-grade system that uses 12GHz and 42GHz ultra-wide band radio technology to deliver high-speed and high-capacity point-to-multipoint wireless backhaul and fixed wireless access.
It can deliver up to 12Gbps wireless backhaul throughput from a central transmission hub, as well as up to 100Mbps per broadband access terminal, FTTA complements fibre deployments with speeds 20 times faster than currently available wireless technologies at less than 10% of the cost of equivalent fibre-based systems, Magne said.
The system has been tested and refined in two multi-year pilot studies, one in mobile network operator Orange Slovensko in Slovakia, the other in Le Sauze du Lac in the mountainous rural area of Haute Alpes, France. A year ago it put in an urban network for the Paris municipality to demonstrate high-speed broadband together with HD television content delivery.