Why tomorrow’s broadband might not use cables or phone lines

light beams

Wednesday, 27 November, 2019

At present, there are two main ways of getting domestic broadband.

One is down your phone line, and the other is from a specialist cable operator.

The latter include Virgin Media, Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, while the former are provided by companies using the telephone lines installed by Openreach.

Until now, the only other option for domestic connectivity has been a 4G dongle or MiFi hub.

These are rarely fast enough to support anything more than light browsing and email, and they’re often used as a backup while broadband is being installed or repaired.

However, that might all be about to change.

There are exciting plans for internet connectivity, which could see future broadband connections evolving far beyond phone lines and underground cables…

Reach for the stars

A new space race is underway, but this time, the goal is to provide broadband from low Earth orbit.

From Facebook and Amazon to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, numerous companies are bidding to launch armies of satellites into space, where they can beam down universal connectivity.

Satellite broadband has been with us for decades, but these ambitious future schemes won’t involve a fixed-position dish and an expensive monthly data contract.

SpaceX is planning to launch up to 12,000 satellites which would cover the planet in fixed orbits, potentially providing future broadband connections to millions of people.

Amazon’s rival system involves over 3,250 satellites, though these would primarily be targeting remote or developing regions of the world.

As Facebook found out with its ill-fated Internet.org project, attempting to serve as a gatekeeper to the internet is fraught with logistical and regulatory pitfalls.

However, the intention of distributing broadband evenly and democratically remains sound, providing equal connectivity regardless of nationality, governance, wealth or topography.

Screen time

While other companies focus on launching fleets of satellites, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative is exploring ways to harness the satellites already up in space.

It has developed a system for providing internet access using the unused frequencies around TV channels, known in the industry as White Spaces.

If you’ve ever watched a TV tuning itself into available channels, you’ll know each channel has its own frequency. The gaps between these are already used by some wireless devices.

Microsoft plans to use this bandwidth to transmit long-distance signals which aren’t affected by natural or manmade structures, bringing broadband to remote communities.

Although the scheme is focused on America at present, residents of remote UK regions will be intrigued to see how the Airband Initiative performs.

The light fantastic

It’s entirely possible future broadband connections won’t involve traditional cables. Instead, connectivity might be distributed by LED lights.

The University of Edinburgh has pioneered a concept known as LiFi, where wireless data is transferred to light sensor-equipped devices by LED lights constantly flickering on and off.

The binary nature of a light reflects the way digital data is coded as either zeroes or ones, meaning LiFi could be used for line-of-sight connectivity anywhere in the world.

From streetlamps and car headlights to desk lamps and even device standby lights, any LED light could become a standalone data source, without interfering with other transmissions.

The human eye would be unable to detect the information being distributed from one millisecond to the next, eliminating any risk of seizures or migraines.

Best of all, LiFi uses the light spectrum – 2,600 times larger than the RF spectrum used for 4G and 5G.

That means it would combine almost limitless bandwidth with astonishing download and upload speeds.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!