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The world without Broadband
May 2006

Oldie readers who escaped the world of work more than five years ago might find this hard to believe, but it is becoming more and more difficult to run any business without having a high powered broadband connection piped to most desks in an office. These days, companies routinely communicate with their other offices, partners, staff and clients using various online methods, and much other work is undertaken over the Internet.

All this needs top speed broadband, and plenty of it. As a result, there are large areas of the country where it is now very difficult to establish a fully working office, as broadband is either not available at all, or only to be had at the lowest level, which is useless for transmitting the quantities of data that are being moved around these days.

This is where the law of unintended consequences steps in and waves a flag. At the beginning of the internet revolution that we have all been suffering for the last ten years or so, the general view was that broadband would be a boon to rural areas, as it would allow companies to set up anywhere, enjoy low overheads and bring employment to even the most remote regions.

In fact, those areas are now becoming even more disadvantaged. Estate Agents are finding that letting offices outside broadband range is becoming next to impossible. And don't think that we are just talking about the top of Snowdon, or the middle of a grouse moor; in practise it means pretty well anywhere that is more than a few 100 yards from a BT exchange.

Pay no attention to BT when they boast (as they do) that 99.8% of households can receive broadband. Their exchanges may, technically, serve all those people to some degree, but the sort of package that even a medium sized business needs as is way above the relatively modest levels of data transmission and reception that a household uses, even one with the most dedicated downloading teenager installed.

So, for the moment, we are becoming a two level economy, split between areas with heavyweight broadband and those without it. Some might welcome the discouragement this will produce for development in the countryside, but in the long run it won't be good for any area if the businesses in it can't trade online with those in the more favoured spots.

The ideal, and most expensive, solution is already available to the few of us with cable television: fibre-optic cables. These use pulses of light to move data at huge speeds and in astonishing quantities. BT already have them between exchanges, but then there is a gear crunching technological down-shift into the overhead copper wire system (designed over 100 years ago) that is the only link from the exchange to the user.

Ideally, BT would lay underground fibre-optic cable to every building in the country, to replace the wires, but I can't see them hurrying to spend that sort of money.

However, there is some hope in the form of a new technology called WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, since you ask). This is will allow previously unheard of quantities of data to be transmitted through the air at high speed over distances up to about five miles or so and a sensible price.

Building a WiMAX network would be very much cheaper than laying thousands of miles of fibre-optic cables, as it simply needs a series of transmitting points. It would then become perfectly possible to install your own WiMAX receiver at modest cost and thus get access to the highest speed broadband services. As such, WiMAX equipment could be critical in providing the national availability of high quality Broadband services.

Unfortunately to make the service properly available, it will need the Government to take a lead in allocating frequencies, and encourage various technical standards. So have a word with your MP. Apart from anything else, it would be interesting to hear if they have ever even heard of WiMAX.

I'm always pleased to hear from readers.


Webster's Tip of the Month Copy text from a website without wierd symbols You can copy text from web sites by highlighting it and pressing Ctrl+C, but sometimes when you paste it into a Word document (by pressing Ctrl+P), it comes with all sorts of strange symbols and things that you don't need. To avoid this, click on Edit...Paste Special and then choose Unformatted Text, and press OK. You'll just get the words, and none of the rubbish. Don't forget any copyright restrictions. Webster's Webwatch A site that tests the speed of your Internet connection. Just go there and watch. See if your ISP is meeting their promises. Pre computer technology. TheCylinder Preservation and Digitisation Project preserves these early sound recordings. You can listen to this amazing collection of over 6,000 recordings, both speech and music, from 1890 onwards. Shows where you would come out if you dug a hole right through the earth. Invaluable for settling arguments.