It seems like much of what we do involves the internet. I know that’s not much of a shocker considering smartphones and digital signage and everything that goes with it, but it seems like people forget that the whole world isn’t on the web. Take, for example, China. Every agency is trying to get their foot in the door because almost every client has targeted China as a source of growth or revenue, but as of June this year, a majority of the people in China did not have access to the internet. It’s tough to pitch interactive as the core of a campaign for China if less than half the people can access it. Flip side, there are so many people in China that we’re talking a LOT of people that could still be reached.
Anyway, it may soon be a moot point, because according to Hal Hodson writing in New Scientist magazine, radio signals beamed over fibre optics may bring wireless internet to the masses (not just China).
As of June this year, 538 million Chinese people had access to the internet, but that leaves the majority offline – a problem researchers in the country are seeking to remedy with a technology that could revolutionize how internet access is distributed. Existing internet infrastructure typically uses different physical components for different services: cell towers for 3G and 4G, cable or phone lines for home broadband. But a government-backed project in China aims to pack all those connectivity standards together and transmit them through single fibre-optc lines in a technique called radio-over-fibre.
“Repetitive construction is a huge waste of money, time and energy, and the coverage is still limited,” says Kun Xu of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. “Our aim is to build a broadband access network using just one integrated intelligent system of radio-over-fibre and distributed antennas.” RoF works by encoding different types of wireless signals into a beam of light and sending them down a fibre-optic cable. At the end of the fibre, those signals are broadcast using a radio antenna, providing 3G and Wi-Fi access simultaneously, for instance.
All of the processing that enables internet traffic to turn into radio signals happens at a central station, so RoF is much cheaper to build, run and maintain than typical wireless distribution networks. It also means that new wireless standards – such as Long Term Evolution, a common coding standard for 4G wireless, and the latest Wi-Fi protocol, 802.11ac – can replace older standards simply by changing equipment at a central point. RoF is gaining ground as a mobile broadband solution in the US, too. As of April, telecoms giant AT&T had 3,000 systems deployed around the US, boosting mobile broadband coverage in areas like stadiums and shopping malls where big, expensive cell masts cannot always cope. “We continue to go very, very aggressively on distributing the antenna syste solutions and so [are] going inside of buildings and ‘lighting up’ buildings from the inside,” said the firm’s CEO Randall Stephenson earlier this year.
So far, Chinese authorities have mainly installed RoF in industrial settings such as harbors, hospitals and supermarkets. The aim is to expand coverage into rural areas, along high-speed rail lines, and in the booming construction of new residential and commercial spaces, says Xu. Jeff Heynen, an analyst at Infonetics Research, which is based in Campbell, California, agrees that RoF is the way forward. “You could carry an entire town’s wireless traffic over a single fibre-optic cable,” he says. Heynen also notes that China’s huge user base means that its demand for RoF will quickly push down the price of the equipment needed to implement it. “The way China goes is the way that the entire worldwide market goes,” he says. “The future city will not need big high-ower cell towers, expensive coaxial cables, or repetitive network infrastructures for different wireless services,” Xu says. “All the services, wired or wireless, will be supplied by this system and controlled by one central office.”
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