Thursday, 4 June 2009

3G Mobile Broadband could cure rural internet woes

I am typing and publishing this entry in the heart of the Cornish countryside about 8 miles inland from Newquay.

The country cottage that myself and husband Brin rented is miles from anywhere - and that's just how we like it. We're here to enjoy a rural break from our urban home in north London and, being mountain bike fans, hurl ourselves around the hills, lakes and woodlands. The fuzzy analogue TV pictures (and non-existent digital terrestrial TV at least until Cornwall experiences the 'digital switchover' in August 2009) allows us just to view enough picture to see that the excellent weather here will continue. 

Still, the occasional blast of technology is good, so I connect an O2 USB data modem 'dongle' to my trusty Macbook Pro and here I am sat in the garden of this remote cottage, surrounded by lambs, cows, and an ancient hill fort -  yet connected to the internet world.


I'd forgotten what 'narrow-band' internet connection actually was. The data dongle is currently reporting that the best connection I have is 42Kbps. In London O2 deals me up to 7 Mbps from the same dongle and at home my router happily reports over 11000Kbps (11Mbps). Quite a difference.

My iPhone experiences similar speeds - mostly standard narrowband (GPRS) in Cornwall outside the towns. In the Cornish towns of Newquay and Wadebridge I do get the '3G' symbol appearing.

I hear of rural communities deploring the fact that they don't get access to broadband, and that the government thinking of solving this by digging up the roads to install fibre cable, seeing as how ADSL doesn't work because the phone connections are too far from the exchange.

Surely the best way would be for the government and cellular phone companies working together to upgrade rural cellular transmitter towers to support 3G (HSDPA - High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and the problem would be solved simply and wirelessly. No roads dug up, far less physical infrastructure to go wrong, and people in transit or on holiday with no access to any wired connection could enjoy broadband speeds as well.

I know that in London (and in HQ in Welwyn Garden City) I get blazing 3G speeds from my same O2 dongle - indeed comparing favourably with my home broadband connection. 

If O2 were given the government incentive to upgrade the cellular transmitter tower I'm connected to right now to 3G, that tower could serve many villages with great broadband internet. Indeed I've looked up on the OFCOM Cellular Tower SiteFinder to discover that the O2 tower I am using is three miles away, north of St.Columb Major, and I'm getting a 4-out-of-5 bar signal sat here. That tower could probably serve a workable 3G/HSDPA 7Mbps signal out to a good 6-to-8 mile radius - that's a lot of rural communities in its zone. If customers helped the signal with a rooftop cellular antenna (my 3G dongle has an antenna socket) it could serve wirelessly out much further.

I talk about O2 for two reasons - firstly I have an O2 3G 'dongle' as I say, and secondly because if O2 did something about this, then magically Tesco Mobile would be able to offer their customers something too... 

It just so happens that I have an unrelated meeting with O2 next week. I think I'll add a subject to the agenda! 


  1. As someone who lives in a "semi-rural" area myself (albeit one who does get some level of broadband, up to 3mbps anyone?) I take interest in the discussion of broadband provision in rural areas. I'm never a fan of these 3G proposals for 2 big reasons:

    1.Price: 3G is still far more expensive than more traditional copper/cable(TV)/fibre connections. The price would have to come down substantially (and the related issue of stupidly low data caps - fine for sending an email when you're on holiday or updating facebook from your iPhone, but not for day in day out use).

    2. Quality: Bad weather, hills, building all effect this. My house, for instance, has steel girders in the structure (unusual I think, something to do with just post war building?) but that just plays games with mobile reception in the house. In such scenarios I'd have to go and sit in the garden to use the internet.

    Also I find such a connection would feel less permanent. In a way I think this is superficial but I think there might be something more to it. Perhaps they're more likely to turn off a phone transmitter than a phone exchange? I don't know. Tied in with this - foul conditions/vandals would find it far easier to attack a phone mast than to attack buried fibre under the road. (It did happen recently in silicon valley, but I think that kind of intentional sabotage is far less likely in rural England, and you're more worried about mindless vandals who, if they can't see it, will probably not hit it).

  2. Hi GoddersUK, thanks for your comments.

    I guess I take a somewhat opposing view from my background as a licensed radio amateur able to transmit radio signals (these days mostly digital) all over the world.

    Reliability: I argue that radio signals are often more reliable than cable signals as long as a good connection is available. Just as you have a TV aerial or satellite dish on your home, a 3G directional antenna pointing at the nearest 3G cellular tower would guarantee good signal strength. A directional antenna would have more than enough gain to compensate for poor weather conditions. These antennas (working at 2100Mhz) would be far smaller than a TV aerial, and a just a few aerial elements (those 'rods' along the aerial) would make the difference between no signal and almost too much signal.

    Cost: cellular data connection prices are tumbling. My O2 3G dongle cost £29 one-off price and I can get (on O2 pay-as-you-go) 3Gbytes / 30 days (which ever is used up first) for £15. And prices / download sizes are set to get better as competition gets keener.

    Connection permanence: Believe me, the investment made by cellular phone providers in each and every tower is such that they do everything they can to keep them running 24/7. I also believe as more people learn that cellular radio signals are safe, the very occasional tower attacks will be eliminated, as well as providing stiff penalties to those who dare to vandalise.

    Should a tower be out of action for any considerable time, it's simply a case of re-orienting the antennas to the next 3G tower as they become more frequently available throughout the UK thanks to operators' investment.

    Does this change your mind? What questions would you want me to ask our O2 rep.( when I see him this week) that would satisfy your concerns?

  3. HSPA is certainly the only alternative to wireline broadband (until LTE), but the issue with 2G/EDGE (EDGE at 384kbps is fast enough for most people to casually browse/check email) and 3G/HSDPA is going to be capacity.

    Standard base stations are going to have to backhaul everything through the core network, which may cause a strain since the core networks have only been scaled until recent years for voice with a little additional data.

    Using Hybrid Backhaul it will be better since each base station would have it's own DSL link, but it would still be like sharing your home broadband with your neighbours, except this time with your whole village and possible even neighbouring villages.

    I'd be interested to hear about the capacity O2 have place in order to get even a small village online with a semi-decent contention ratio.

  4. Altius Directory16 June 2009 at 07:23

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Nick,

    Great post, the following article shows some options for people with poor 3G broadband signal:

    Not guaranteed where coverage is non-existent, but they definately work. Perhaps the "High Gain" options would be best suit for rural scenarios.

  6. This is great news. I'm not very good at technology, but I'm trying to learn more. Without technology, there is nothing you can do nowadays.

  7. The revolution in computer science and technology has radically transformed the way we communicate with and view each other.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. This is good facility "3g mobile broadband. And this is so famous in young generation. and very useful for me

  10. 3g Mobile Broadband Services Like simply selling an all-inclusive Mobile Broadband service - regardless of ... Two thirds of all tablets sold with integrated 3G, though not all user activate this Mobile broadband HSPA

  11. Mobile broadband HSPA Although operators have started to explore new business models for Mobile broadband; Ericsson believes that operators can do more. We think that broadband Mobile broadband business models

  12. Well, 3g is too old nowadays... sorry for bumping up an old post


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