Bringing rural Europe online: what’s better, wireless or fiber?

Several sessions and seminars of the 2011 European Open Days (*) have covered the theme of how to bring broadband connectivity to every European citizen. According to several Open Days panelists, when scarcely populated and possibly rugged rural areas get fast, reliable and affordable non-stop access to online services:

  • innovative small and medium businesses can start and prosper locally

  • doctors and other professionals are more likely to remain (or arrive!)

  • so do students, if they can follow courses remotely

  • income from local taxes increases

Now, hat’s the best technology in those cases, wireless or fiber? Maybe, looking at these stories from the Open Days, there is no single answer.

Wireless Networks success stories from Vodafone: Hofbieber and Civita Castellana

Hofbieber is a German community of 6400 people living on a 90 sq KM area, recently covered by an LTE rollout. Before that, 384KB ADSL was the fastest option available for about half the residents, and there was strong demand from local businesses for faster connections.

In order to provide real broadband to all the areas of Hofbieber the major went for mobile networks because “we couldn’t wait 5 years”. After the rollout, Internet usage in businesses increased, and today Hofbieber residents see their town both more attractive for new companies and better served in several fields.

The district around Civita Castellana is one of the areas covered with HSPA+ or LTE radio networks by the Vodafone 1000comuni project. Until 2010 the whole district, that includes 8 municipalities hosting 70 companies that produce 50% of the quality ceramic tiles and sanitary wares made in Italy, had no broadband. Therefore, Assessor Paolo Bianchini said, “local ceramic entrepreneurs were forced to spend and pollute a lot to present their products in Trade Fairs around the world, in order to stay competitive on international markets”.

In 2010, when those same entrepreneurs officially asked for broadband, local politicians of all parties invited Vodafone to deploy its high-speed mobile network in the area. Now, Bianchini said, “broadband will help those companies to keep the Arab market and enter the Russian, Indian and American ones. Besides, broadband is also helping local unemployed people to find job opportunities more quickly and to get training online”.

Why Wireless is good

Stories like these are why, according to Vodafone, HSPA and LTE radio networks are THE answer to rural broadband demands. Only such networks provide a cost effective, simple to deploy, future proof infrastructure that also enables wireless Internet Radio, Telefony and IPTV. “Mobile network can be expanded if and when demand increases, whereas in fiber networks 80% of the cost is digging, that is an all or nothing work: what if nobody uses them after 10 years?" asked a Vodafone executive.

A Fiber To The Home success story from Denmark

ERISA presented the Midtsoenderjylland FTTH deplloyment, that started as a bottom up activity in 2002, when there was no support for broadband rural areas from the national government or incumbent operators. That year, an analysis from local authorities, politicians, university visionaries concluded that:

  1. optic fibre was the only solution capable of delivering triple play services to everyone, everywhere in region

  2. a master plan was needed to build at the lowest possible cost a complete fibre ring network, owned and operated by the municipality both for its own use and for leasing capacity to private service operators.

Besides coordinating digging projects and building the network step by step, the project acted as catalyst for local access networks owned and operated by local electricity coperatives. Such companies, having a 20yr timeframe for ROI, are different from telcos, and using the network they could make their grid smarter and more efficient.

The results seem very positive: fiber was and is seen as the only solution capable of delivering triple play services to everyone everywhere in region, and “a single fibre infrastructure is enough if open and neutral”. The only (general) problem mentioned for such deployments is quality of the materials used for canalisation: “it is necessary to set standards to avoid big trouble in 20 years if people buy cheap equipment”.

So, what’s the real answer? It probably depends on many factors, including geography and residents density (not to mention that there are almost 10 years between the two projects!). From my point of view, what matters is what somebody in the audience noted: if, when it comes to town, broadband is empty, that is there are no useful e-government, e-health, entertainment and business services in it… what’s the point?

(*) this and other articles on the 2011 Open Days are appearing late because, due to several hardware problems, I could not recover the corresponding files earlier