An initiative using redundant parts of the TV spectrum could be the key to providing broadband for the hard to reach places, Microsoft has said.
The tech behemoth has been trialling Airband technology outside Ballyhaise, Co Cavan for the past two years.
TV white space is unassigned broadcast spectrum which travels over long distances, penetrates natural and man-made obstacles, and is abundant in rural areas. Large parts of the spectrum are available in Ireland since the switch over from analogue to digital.
Microsoft Ireland is now going to partner with the Department of Community and Rural Development to make it more widely available in rural Ireland.
Airband is a wireless-based technology which uses TV white space (TVWS) devices and other low-cost wireless technologies to make it easier and more affordable for people to get online.
Microsoft introduced the technology in the United States in the summer of 2017. The company has ambitions to provide access to broadband to three million people living in the rural United States by next summer.
The Airband technology was trialled in Europe in Ballyhaise and has been deemed a success by users.
The area was chosen because it is in drumlin country with particularly poor broadband coverage in places.
Tina O’Boyle said her home is three kilometres outside Ballyhaise is in a valley and most of the time she does not even have a phone signal. She was told by Eir that eight poles would have to be erected to get broadband into her home and even then the coverage would not be great.
The situation became particularly acute last year when her daughter Róisin was doing her Junior Certificate while schools were closed. "It has made a huge difference because there was no school. There was no way Roisin would have been able to cope without Microsoft Airband. Now we can have five or six people on the broadband at one time."
The signal comes through a box on the roof which is beamed from a mast at the Teagasc Ballyhaise Agricultural College.
The college, which has 500 students, had broadband on the campus and for students who live on site, but outside their accommodation most students could not even get a phone signal. “There is no such thing as 3G. You lose signal behind a hill,” he said.
The college has 500 acres. All is now part of a wifi hotspot. Ballyhaise principal John Kelly said the technology allowed us "to bring the classroom to the field".
It allows for the automatic downloading of data relating to soil moisture deficits and pasture based monitoring from the field straight back to laptops in the college.
Microsoft Ireland national technology officer Kieran McCorry said Airband could become complementary to the National Broadband Plan which aims to connect 544,000 of the most difficult to reach premises within seven years.
He said TV white space technology could be an alternative to fibre broadband in the home, especially as it is capable of a longer range and does not need a line of sight.
“There are many ways to provide connectivity. If you can run fibre to a house you are going to get the highest speed and lowest latency connection,” he said.
“There are always going to be locations that are difficult to reach and difficult to reach fibre. Airband uses lower range of frequencies so it tends to lend itself to the challenging terrain. It is particularly suited to rural areas not urban areas as it susceptible to frequency interference.
“It is the first deployment of TV white space technology in Europe. It is great to see Ireland leading on that.
“I don’t see why it can’t be used substantially to connect large numbers of households,” he said.