By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist
Howard’s recent post on the potential for broadband to reshape rural areas raised some interesting issues, and generated a lot of discussion. For me though, the biggest question it raised was how service providers will actually make it work. How can they deliver broadband services to vast, sparsely populated regions in a way that makes sense economically?
Of course, the industry is already answering this question. One promising possibility: fixed wireless broadband.
Broadband Inclusion for Rural Regions
In theory, new high-speed 4G and LTE wireless services can provide an excellent solution for getting broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas that have been left behind in the broadband revolution.
In the United States, Verizon Wireless’ chief technology officer Dick Lynch recently told GigaOM magazine that the company intends to use its LTE network (which Verizon claims will cover 285 million people by 2013) to serve fixed broadband customers.
“In wireless, I see a great opportunity within the LTE plans we have to begin to service the customers who don’t have broadband today.”
The Australian government just announced they will be deploying an LTE network with download speeds up to 12 Mbps in rural regions, as part of the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN) initiative.
Bell Canada and Bell Aliant also plan to use fixed wireless instead of wireline to provide broadband connections in rural areas of Quebec and Ontario.
Economic Stimulus within the Developing World
Fixed wireless could also be a compelling solution in developing regions that are not currently served, or are under-served, by traditional wireline infrastructure.
In India, wireless broadband is emerging as a vital stimulus component in rural and regional economic development.
A recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers report forecasts that:
Mobile broadband [will] play a role in integrating rural India with other parts of the country and help widen markets, create better information flows, lower transaction costs.
Approximately 50 to 60 percent of government services in India can be delivered through mobile channels.
Through effective utilization of various mobile broadband based services, farmers are likely to save approximately Rs. 6 billion in 2015.
A recent Frost & Sullivan report also suggests that mobile broadband is set to explode in West and Central Africa.
Putting Wireless Broadband to the Test
All of this sounds promising, but will people really adopt a wireless broadband service for their primary Internet connection? How does the experience actually compare?
Writer Mark Sullivan of PC World tried to find out last December, relying only on 3G and 4G wireless connections for his Internet services. He found that even with 4G connections, wireless broadband still wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
“Some of the less bandwidth-hungry tasks in my tests — e-mail, MP3 downloads, Web page loads, and the like — performed just fine (albeit slower) sans cable, because they rely for the most part on raw download speed…. But the high-def video and online gaming apps [that must maintain a sustained high-speed connection] were a different story.”
Sullivan’s findings seem to mirror the results of an Analysys Mason survey conducted earlier this year, which according to Billing & OSS World Magazine, found “a strong, and correct, perception among consumers that mobile broadband is slower, less reliable and more expensive than fixed broadband.”
Looking Ahead in Anticipation
So what can we expect? For the foreseeable future, assume that wireless and wireline broadband will complement each other, and play cooperative — rather than competitive — roles in providing broadband to the world. And that’s a good thing: even if wireless networks can’t fully duplicate the quality of experience of cable or DSL services, they offer a viable way for rural and developing regions to relatively quickly jump-start economic growth.