Could mobile broadband be the answer to “notspots”?

According to BBC News, UK mobile operator Three is giving away 3G broadband to rural areas that are struggling to get online via fixed line services.

Whether it’s because the telephone exchange is too far away, or that fibre-optic cables haven’t been rolled out to an area, there are large parts of the UK that are unable to get fixed-line broadband services. Sure, the technology has improved over the years, with the range to the exchange being extended, but there are still limitations. Mobile broadband can give access in areas where that would otherwise be impossible.

To demonstrate how mobile broadband could be used to plug gaps in the UK’s broadband coverage, Three are providing dongles and WiFi hotspots to eleven communities. As well as the hardware, Three will give these communities Internet access for a year.

Having holidayed in several rural communities in recent years I know something of the inconvenience of not being able to get Internet access. The thing is, in those same instances, mobile signal was terrible too. So, does that herald the end of the rural mobile broadband vision?

Well, it’s certainly not the case that all rural areas have terrible mobile signal, so many of the gaps in UK broadband coverage will be easily plugged using dongles. A number of commentators have taken a somewhat sceptical view of Three’s efforts, though, saying that by helping the government with their commitment to bring broadband to all areas by 2015, Three will also position themselves better to bid for part of the EM spectrum.

The 800 Mhz spectrum is going to be auctioned next year. This operates at a significantly lower frequency to Three’s current broadcast signals. If you studied physics at school you may be aware that low frequency signals travel further and bend around obstacles better than high frequency ones. So, if Three (or any other mobile provider) were able to snap up the 800 Mhz band, their signals would cope better with hills and reach further into rural areas.

It’s a bit of circular reasoning, but by providing mobile broadband to rural communities, Three could make themselves contenders for a low frequency spectrum that would further enhance their ability to provide mobile broadband to rural communities.

What do you think of Three’s move? Do you use mobile broadband? If so, would you rely on it as your primary source of Internet access? Do you think Three is doing this purely as a technology demo, or are they maneuvering for next year’s EM spectrum auction? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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