Stepping up internet services in rural and remote locations
The NRC's fixed wireless technology aims to connect vast country spaces faster, more reliably and less expensively than ever.
Rolling hills and fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Workers plant or harvest produce and grain. Fishing boats chug out to sea off remote shores.
Picturesque scenes such as these remind us of the importance of rural and often remote areas to the economy. Behind the rustic tableaus are thriving businesses that feed the supply chain and the populace—and depend on close connections with purchasers, consumers, suppliers and countless critical services to keep their operations running smoothly.
But in communities such as these across Canada, hundreds of thousands of residents do not have basic, high-speed internet access. If they do, their connections can be affected by weather or internet traffic volumes, and limited by data restrictions. As more and more people work and learn from home, their service bills can also rise with growing bandwidth needs.
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is working to change this through its High‑throughput and Secure Networks Challenge program. Mandated by the Government of Canada, the program is developing innovative technologies so network operators and service providers can offer faster, less costly and more secure internet services to rural and remote communities across the country.
One technology making waves in this environment is fixed wireless access (FWA), which beams radio signals from wireless antennas on land-based towers directly into homes and workplaces. "FWA eliminates the need for phone lines or cables like those in crowded city networks," says Boris Lamontagne, Photonic Thrust Leader for the program. "It is therefore a cost-effective option for residents, businesses and internet service providers in far-flung, low-density areas." He points out that FWA is also more reliable than popular satellite services, which can be affected by faraway weather as well as distances that signals must travel.
From the tower to the desk
Since the work on FWA was launched a year ago, the NRC has been consulting and collaborating with industry stakeholders such as network component manufacturers to confirm that there is a need for R&D in that sector. The program's world-leading team of technology experts has also been applying out-of-the-box thinking that adds unique features to FWA.
For example, by using various printing techniques, researchers are creating low-cost antennas that are easy to transport and install. An artificial intelligence (AI) element can detect and fix network problems, saving time and money by reducing the need to send technicians to remote areas. And the team's unique quantum-dot laser sources will complement existing fibre optics systems by converting the optical signals into wireless waves emitted by fixed wireless towers. This new technology will also help decrease installation and maintenance costs.
Lamontagne expects the FWA solution to be available on the market within 5 years. "After additional industry consultations, testing and development, we will transfer the NRC's patented, licensed technology to industry." He adds that the NRC's technology could provide customers with speeds 20 times faster than the current CRTC broadband standard of 50 Mbps per household.
Like the telephone in the 20th century, internet access has become an essential service. In rural communities today, it is a lifeline that allows Canadians to work from home—and from there access services such as health, education, and e-commerce. And that is one giant step forward along an interconnected country mile.