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Milton Keynes to assess wireless broadband access

New city, old cabling

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BT can't offer you ADSL. Your local cable TV company isn't much help either. So what do you do if you want broadband Internet access? If you're a British town council hoping that high-speed Internet connectivity will help drive the local economy in the 21st Century, you have only one option: offer it yourself.

That's certainly what Milton Keynes Council plans to do. It's starting the ball rolling with a pilot scheme intended to test the viability of providing wireless broadband to the city's 212,000-odd citizens.

If all goes to plan, the first users to access the Internet using the Council's service, part of the initial 200-user pilot, could be surfing at high speed later this month, says Steven Jewell, MK's head of IT and the brains behind the project.

The irony is that despite its reputation as one of the UK's leading 'new cities' - site of the UK's first multiplex cinema, once home of Europe's largest covered shopping zone - Milton Keynes is cursed with a remarkably old-fashioned communications infrastructure. Its cable television networks, for example, laid down in a pre-satellite era, is first-generation infrastructure designed for the needs of analog signals not digital broadband services. It seems unlikely that the area's cableco, NTL, will make the significant investment necessary to bring the cable network up to date.

MK's telecommunications infrastructure, meanwhile, consists of plenty of TPON (Telecommunications over Passive Optical Network) fibre in the ground linking premises, distribution boxes and exchanges. TPON was once seen as the basis for delivering fibre-hosted telephony and data services direct to the home. The trouble is, ADSL, today's de facto standard for low-cost broadband over the phone network, only operates over copper cabling. Not that MK has much of that - there's also rather a lot of cheap aluminium cabling in the ground, installed during the city's rapid growth in the 1980s.

Ironically, BT is responsible for the cable TV situation too, we hear, having laid down the network in the late 1970s after an early MK Council decided it would not allow external TV aerials on homes and offices. BT sold the cable TV network to NTL a couple of years ago.

Local pressure groups, such as Broadband for Monkston and Middleton, have been lobbying for a solution for some time. MK residents should checkout BBMM's site for more information and useful links.

Last March, BT said it will investigate whether its will be feasible for TPON-connected consumers - not only in MK but throughout the UK - to be given copper connections too, in order to enable ADSL. It's also looking at upping the signal strength to reach these users and those already linked by copper who are more than 5.5km from their nearest telephone exchange.

According to Jewell, BT reckons that that adjusting the signal strength that way and wrapping copper around TPON lines will extend the provision of ADSL to 93 per cent of the MK population, up from less than a half. BT says it should be in a position to offer them all ADSL by July.

The trouble is, that still leaves plenty of residents and local businesses without high speed Internet connections, particularly those just outside the city boundary. And there's no guarantee BT will make the necessary changes. It may be feasible to dramatically broaden the ADSL catchment area by July, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. Certainly would-be broadbanders in other parts of the country have been told by BT that their TPON lines will not be upgraded.

So the wireless broadband trial is set to go ahead, backed by £25,000 worth of funding from the South-East England Development Agency (SEEDA), which is keen to encourage local councils to promote broadband and implement the technology where ADSL or cable TV connections are impossible.

SEEDA itself favours satellite-based systems where the correct cabling is not available, but Jewell is backing wireless, having already been involved, along with the MK-based Open University and the Council's education department, in a project to connect around 70 schools in the MK area using similar technology.

According the Jewell, the trial will operate in the 10GHz band, connecting a base-station in the city's Linford Wood area - specifically, mounted on a mast owned by Cable & Wireless - to domestic and business sites within a 5-10km radius. The antennae are directional, with a 90-degree sweep, which is handy since Jewell is eager that the trial be restricted by users who really don't have access to ADSL. Some parts of the city - the town of Newport Pagnell, for instance - do have access to that technology.

It's all about providing broadband services to folk who can't get it, he says, not about competing with existing suppliers. BT Openworld isn't exactly short of competitors.

The MK pilot system is based on technology developed by UK-based microwave communications specialist Ogier Electronics. It's compatible with DOCSIS, so the network operates using TCP/IP. At the user's site, the installation comprises a 22 x 21 x 5cm (8.8 x 8.4 x 2in) 'pizza box' aerial panel and a standard cable modem. Repeaters may be installed to cope with line-of-sight and similar problems between base-station and users. Each base-station can talk to around 4,300 users simultaneously.

Once up and running, the trial is expected to last four months, during which time, Jewell and the project's commercial partner will investigate how the system can deliver broadband access to as broad a base of residents as possible. At the same time, a separate evaluation, funded by a further £30,000 from SEEDA, will be carried out to explore the commercial potential the service offers.

Commercial issues will largely govern whether the pilot becomes a full-blown roll out, says Jewell. And they will largely depend on whether BT does indeed commit itself to upgrading the local telecoms infrastructure to support ADSL. Jewell admits that positive action from BT may well render a full-scale service unnecessary, or at least commercially unviable. Or NTL may decide there's enough potential business to justify updating the cable TV wiring. The Council's as-yet-unnamed commercial partner, he says, is happy to work in these circumstances.

As for the Council itself, you can argue that even if BT does follow through, the Council will still have got it wish by having broadband brought to as many city residents and businesses as possible. Ultimately, what matters is not who does it but that fact that it's done.

In any case, Jewell views wireless broadband as a short-term solution. The future, he says, is a wired infrastructure, probably fibre, with its much higher bandwidth capacity. But for now wireless may well have a role to play bringing mass-market broadband to locations that it's too uneconomic or impractical to lay right kind of cable to. The MK trial is set to provide invaluable information about how that can be achieved. ®

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