Planes, trains and mobiles: Broadband from space while we're on the move

By Kenneth Macdonald
BBC Scotland Science Correspondent

Image caption,
A new generation of satellites could offer the perfect solution to the problems of "hotspots and notspots"

Researchers at Heriot-Watt university are designing new technology to allow the use of high-speed broadband from orbit while we are on the move.

The team has been awarded one million euros in EU funding to develop terminals to connect to a new generation of satellites.

The system will be for use on planes, trains and other fast-moving platforms.

The mobile Very Small Aperture Terminals (mVSAT) will provide higher data rates and improved services.

Digital devices - be they smartphones, tablets, cameras or a combination of all three - are almost ubiquitous these days. Pity the signal isn't.

Whether you use one for phoning, instant messaging, news, games, or looking at supposedly amusing pictures of cats, you need 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, anything with a digital pulse.

But many parts of Scotland - of the world, indeed - are "notspots".

Satellites would appear to offer an ideal solution, but the radio spectrum that's available to get that signal to you is filling up fast, especially the lower frequencies.

Image caption,
The Heriot-Watt plan involves using frequencies higher up the electromagnetic spectrum
Image caption,
Dr George Goussetis is leading the Scottish part of the develoment programme

The developing idea is to use frequencies higher up the electromagnetic spectrum - what they call the Q/V band - where wavelengths are measured in just millimetres.

The Alphasat satellite, which was launched last year, is carrying a payload to test these new frequencies and, in particular, how the Earth's atmosphere affects them.

But the antennas that would receive the signals from the satellite and send our instructions back up there will have to be small, powerful and - most importantly - actually in existence.

Which is where the Heriot-Watt team comes in.

Working with Europe's largest space company, Airbus Defence and Space, the DORADA project is developing new radio technologies for broadband millimetre wave satellite communication systems.

The team is being led by the university's reader in sensors, signals and systems Dr George Goussetis.

"We're looking to develop technologies around antennas that will have the capability to operate at higher frequencies," he says, "that can be used to deliver coverage from space to the Earth, that will optimise the data throughput between the Earth and space, and that are compact, so they will not interfere with the aerodynamics of mobile platforms like airplanes."

Image caption,
Smartphones, tablets and cameras may be everywhere, but they all need to fight for a signal

Small, powerful, fast and able to transfer lots of data in a very short space of time is a pretty demanding design spec, which is why it's likely to take years to advance to the next generation of communication.

There is already Wi-Fi on some trains in the UK and you can phone from a plane if you are lucky enough to be flying the right route.

But the Wi-Fi on Scottish trains gets its data from terrestrial base stations, which is fine until you go out of range of one.

And, while you can already make mobile phone calls on some flights, there is a limit to how many people can dial up at the same time.

Dr Goussetis says the new terminals could give us all high-speed broadband wherever we are.

"At the moment, we get Wi-Fi on trains through base stations on the ground. But, when we do have those in remote areas, it's likely to be through satellite technology.

"For airplanes, which are out of range of base stations, satellite is one of the key technologies for delivering internet on the move.

"What we're looking to do is make that connection faster so it will allow individualised connections per passenger - connecting to the internet, connecting to their smart devices."

And there could be a lot more, including delivering ultra-HD and 3D TV in rural areas where it's not practical to lay cable.

As with so much digital technology, the ultimate limit may be our imagination.

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