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Summary:

The FCC is poised to release the first batch of unlicensed wireless spectrum in 25 years, called white spaces, tomorrow, which could lead to “Wi-Fi on Steroids,” giving consumers, device makers, entrepreneurs and service providers more connectivity over wider areas. Here’s what you need to know.

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The Federal Communications Commission is poised to release the first batch of unlicensed wireless spectrum in 25 years tomorrow, which could lead to “Wi-Fi on Steroids,” giving consumers, device makers, entrepreneurs and service providers more connectivity over wider areas.

The FCC is scheduled to vote tomorrow morning on a set of rules that will set the release of this so-called “white spaces broadband” into motion, giving device makers and others the guidelines on how they can use the spectrum. This could inject new competition in the wireless broadband space and provide a boost to technology companies hoping to connect more consumers. Just as Wi-Fi tapped unlicensed spectrum and untethered millions of consumers, white spaces could have a similar effect on a broader scale.

White spaces refers to the unused television spectrum that traditionally existed between channels as buffers or empty spectrum left over or vacated by TV stations through the transition from analog to digital TV. The FCC voted two years ago to approve the unlicensed use of whites spaces. Here’s what you need to know about white spaces:

Why White Spaces Are Hot.

  • Because of its lower frequency, white spaces can offer much broader reach and better penetration through walls than the current spectrum used for Wi-Fi. For example, a Super Wi-Fi network could cover 16 times more area than a traditional Wi-Fi hot spot.
  • White spaces also offer the promise of faster speeds, up to 100 megabits per second. That can be used for end users or to connect local Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • The added range and performance could help connect rural communities, allow schools to light up entire campuses, help service providers relieve burdened cellular networks and could help with things like in-home video streaming and smart meter monitoring.
  • White spaces could trigger a new wave of innovation for device makers and application developers. A white spaces study commissioned by Microsoft found that the use of white spaces could add $3.9 to $7.3 billion in economic activity a year.

So What’s the Problem?

  • Since white spaces would remain unlicensed, the use of it could interfere with local broadcasters.
  • The use of wireless of microphones could also be compromised by interference from Super Wi-Fi devices.

Who Cares About This Anyway?

  • Technology heavyweights like Google, Dell, Microsoft and others have rallied on behalf of white spaces.
  • The National Association of Broadcasters has filed a lawsuit to halt the use of white spaces because of fears of interference.
  • Theatrical groups and sports franchises have also raised concerns about interference for wireless microphones.
  • Consumer groups such as Free Press, Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and others have pushed for the use of white spaces.

The Devil is in the Details:

  • In order to minimize interference, the FCC is establishing a database of existing channels so that new devices must steer clear of those bands. The question is how often will devices need to consult the database to avoid interference. Too often, and it can be burdensome on device makers. Too infrequently, and it could lead to interference if devices stray into protected areas.
  • The FCC will name a private company or companies, perhaps as early as tomorrow, to serve as the database administrator. Google and others have applied for the job. The entity that administers the database could play an important role in how white spaces are used.
  • The FCC could also set larger buffers around existing channels or set aside whole channels for wireless microphone users, which could eat into the available spectrum for unlicensed use.
  • It’s unclear at what power device makers can operate at, which could also limit the range of Super Wi-Fi devices.

Where You Can Find White Spaces Networks.

There have been been several tests of white spaces including: connecting a rural school in Claudeville, Va., a low-cost broadband and water sensing project in Wilmington, N.C. and a test at Rice University where researchers are building devices that can switch between white spaces and traditional Wi-Fi.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d):

Google’s Latest White Space Push: The Smart Grid

Who Will Profit From Broadband Innovation?

Telcos Tap Wireless Opportunities In the Smart Grid

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user herdeirodocaos33.

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  1. The idea of white space unlocks so many possibilities. The far reaching, wi-fi could transform cities. The younger, leaner generation could really benefit from free internet especially in these waist tightening times. The potential is just too big to ignore!

    http://www.danfonseca.wordpress.com
    @whoisdanfonseca <– twitter

  2. A year or so back, Microsoft was running a test demo in the Bay Area. Still around? Still available for folks out Om’s way to test?

  3. For the benefit of many, broadcasters should get WIRED microphones. :-)

  4. Get Ready to Innovate! FCC Approves White Spaces Rules: Tech News « Thursday, September 23, 2010

    [...] a previously approved database that would monitor existing spectrum uses in each market. This was a major question coming in, whether device makers would have to include the technology and how often the devices would have to [...]

  5. Ryan, I hope Om and company realize that you are kicking it! I have high expectations for white spaces, the whole interference issue is, in my opinion, a red herring by entrenched broadcasters.

    Only, you don’t say the size (e.g. MHz range) of this new allotted spectrum. Is there an equivalent throughput rate we can compare it to? Thanks.

    1. Brian- you hit on the key issue, MHz. The marketing term WiFi on steroids is misleading and just lame. Whitespaces use TV channels of 6MHz. Of course the lower frequencies will have better propagation but also much lower data rates. This is a great development but lets be realistic about what they capabilities really are.

  6. “Because of its lower frequency, white spaces can offer much broader reach and better penetration through walls than the current spectrum used for Wi-Fi. For example, a Super Wi-Fi network could cover 16 times more area than a traditional Wi-Fi hot spot.”

    A little misleading. Lower frequency does mean greater range and better penetration of obstacles. However, total network capacity is proportional to the carrying-capacity of a given swath of bandwidth times the number of discrete access points. A “Super Wi-Fi network” would actually drastically reduce the overall capacity of a white space network. This may be necessary where users are few and far between, but it would be a tremendous waste of the potential of the technology; in dense urban areas using many low power access points operating at obstacle penetrating frequencies.

    “White spaces also offer the promise of faster speeds, up to 100 megabits per second. That can be used for end users or to connect local Wi-Fi hotspots.”

    I didn’t get the memo the the laws of physics had been repealed. Lower frequencies means lower speeds. The advantage of lower frequencies again is getting through obstacles. As for the 100 megabits/sec, if true, we’re not taking about a lot of simultaneous users here.

    1. Mubaraq Mishra Ray Tuesday, October 5, 2010

      Lower frequency does not mean lower speeds. The lowers frequency means that attenuation is low. The 6MHz bandwidth does limit the data rate.

  7. Mubaraq Mishra Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    White Spaces are not really WiFi on steroids. Since propagation in these frequencies is good, the interference footprint is also larger. Furthermore, these bands are polluted due to the presence of DTV broadcasts.

  8. FCC Chairman: Why We Need More Wireless Spectrum: Tech News « Monday, October 11, 2010

    [...] is the first time in 25 years that the FCC has passed an order that frees up wireless spectrum and makes it available unlicensed for innova…. “Wireless in general is very central to our economic growth,” Chairman Genachowski told me in [...]

  9. FCC Chairman: Why We Need More Wireless Spectrum | Voip Board Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    [...] is the first time in 25 years that the FCC has passed an order that frees up wireless spectrum and makes it available unlicensed for innova…. “Wireless in general is very central to our economic growth,” Chairman Genachowski [...]

  10. Worried About Tablets the FCC Gets Serious About Spectrum: Tech News « Thursday, October 21, 2010

    [...] licensing program, which allows for the testing of new protocols and technologies such as White Spaces broadband to make it to make it easier to try them out and see if they work. Changes would include easing [...]

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