Broadband Britain Needs Wi-Fi, Not 3G

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3G can’t connect up the off-net millions, but Wi-Fi can, says Selina Lo, chief executive of Ruckus Wireless

Gaps in national broadband infrastructures should be filled in with Wi-Fi, not 3G, according to Selina Lo, chief executive of Ruckus Wireless.

3G does not have the right attributes to fill the gaps in broadband provision, according to Lo, whose company is set to announce a Wi-Fi based solution to connecting remote or under-served locations up to the Net.

The UK government has promised everyone in the country can have 2Mbps broadband, with 3G networks used to fill the gaps where copper phone lines cannot provide a good enough service. BT has criticised this, saying that wireless technologies are not up to the job. Lo thinks that 3G might be lacking, but Wi-Fi can take its place.

“If 3G is going to be used as a means to provide 2M broadbands, your base station will have to really close by,” she told eWEEK Europe on a visit to London last week. “You don’t normally even get 1Mbps unless you are close to the base station.”

If 3G were used to connect a remote community, then it would need a very high capacity backhaul and an expensive base station, she said.

By contrast, Ruckus makes outdoor Wi-Fi base stations that can use a Wi-Fi to distribute signals using the newly-ratified 802.11n fast Wi-Fi to homes that do not have good enough connections. “In a lot of developing markets we can see that the outdoor access can provide broadband, in places where copper is not available,” said Lo. The system is providing Wi-Fi access to residential buidings in Mumbai, India, where fifteen access points provide service to around 3000 homes, she said.

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The offering will be completed in October, when the company is due to launch a product which uses a high-power variant of Wi-Fi for the long-distance backhaul, turning Wi-Fi into a cheaper, unlicensed equivalent of WiMax, and a much better solution than 3G for broadband fill-in, Lo said.

Wi-Fi-based systems are so much cheaper than the alternatives, that broadband can be provided more economically this way, she said. New access points can be added with a mesh – dual-band 802.11n makes that cost-effective – and users can have Wi-Fi nodes as gateway boxes (“customer premises equipment” or CPE in service provider jargon) in their homes.

Because the uplink is the same as the network in the house, some won’t even need to have CPE, she said.

The whole thing might remind readers of the fad for “Metro Wi-Fi” around five years ago, where local authorities planned to provide a cloud of wireless coverage, to eliminate the digital divide amongst their citizens, and deliver services.

That failed, as its business model did not work, says Lo: “The idea behind Metro Wi-Fi was broken. It was misguided in the first place. They were trying to use Wi-Fi to replace DSL which was stupid.”

This time round, Wi-Fi works better, there are more devices that can use it: “When Metro WiFi was tossed three years ago, you didn’t have iPhones and dual-mode handsets.”

More people are using Wi-Fi in coffee shops, and she has argued before that this can provide 3G operators with the offload capacity they need to meet their self-created problem, where demand is now too high for the existing 3G networks: “If you are trying to do data intensive apps, people are gravitating towards Wi-Fi hotspots.”

And carriers have changed their attitude: “They used to see Wi-Fi as something that threatens 3G – now they see it as something that offloads 3G and makes the customers happier by giving them high speed access.”

In Hong Kong, she says, service providers have found they can offload 25 percent of their peaktime broadband traffi c to Wi-Fi hotspots in bars and coffee shops.

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