We're Gonna Have to Wait a Year for White Spaces

istock_000005540809xsmallThe votes have been cast, the winners and losers have spoken, and the euphoria of yesterday will now give way to the realization that a lot of hard work lies ahead. We’re not talking about the U.S. presidential race, but the even longer slog to use the spectrum between digital television channels for unlicensed wireless broadband.

For years, broadband proponents such as Google,, Motorola, Dell and Microsoft have pushed to use this spectrum, which will be opened up next February, for some type of unlicensed wireless broadband following the model Wi-Fi uses today. Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission approved plans to make that happen. Proponents of the technology rejoiced, issuing congratulatory statements heralding the dawn of a new age of broadband for all Americans. Opponents, meanwhile, such as the National Association of Broadcasters and users of wireless microphones — including Dolly Parton — vowed to continue the fight.

More requirements, more work

And they will. But that won’t be the only thing making white spaces a grey issue. When the FCC approved the technology, it included some interesting caveats. Among them, low-power devices that use geolocation to avoid interference with television channels and microphones will be required to undergo the typical FCC certification process to get a seal of approval for devices. This is great for Motorola, which manufactures geolocation sensing products, but makes consumer deployment more complicated because someone has to host the database and keep it up to date.

The low-power requirement is also limiting for proponents of white spaces. Rob Kenney, a spokesman for the FCC, says devices transmitting in an “open channel” that isn’t adjacent to a broadcast channel can broadcast at up to 100 mW, while those that are operating in an adjacent channel have to operate below 40 mW.

There are two issues with this. First the “open channels” will commonly be found in rural areas where there aren’t as many television stations, so more channels are empty. Broadcasting in an open channel requires two empty channels on either side of the data signal. In urban areas with more stations, finding the five channels necessary to broadcast at that higher power will be difficult if not impossible. That means a device maker needs to create two classes of device — one for rural areas and one for urban areas — if it wants to take advantage of the highest power settings. That’s costly.

The lower the power, the more involved a network buildout will be, because lower-power devices can’t shout as loudly to talk to a tower. This means more towers or access points in the network, and puts a damper on portable white spaces devices for the time being.

The FCC also gave a tentative nod to devices that use spectrum sensing rather than geolocation sensing, and it left the door open to higher-powered devices. Spectrum-sensing devices, which would scan the spectrum before broadcasting a signal to it, will have to undergo a more rigorous testing and approval process, one that includes public approval (you can bet opponents will make their voices heard) as well as a vote from the commissioners. That’s a lot of bureaucracy for what should presumably be a low-cost broadband-enabled device. The FCC will review higher-powered devices through a separate inquiry later.

The long road ahead

Aside from the limits put on the technology, it’s going to take at least a year to roll out devices, according to Steve Sharkey, senior director of spectrum and regulatory policy at Motorola. The prototype devices used in the tests are clearly not ready for consumer use and deployment. Businesses will also have to build a network and figure out business models.

However, devices will take the most time to come to fruition, as networks can be set up using existing models and infrastructure. He points to Motorola’s Canopy network products as an example. Backhaul could be delivered by fiber, landline broadband or even through piggybacking on a different white spaces channel to get back to the Internet. As for business models, different companies have different plans.

One model, similar to the way Wi-Fi is deployed, involves a consumer shelling out for the device and providing their own broadband. This obviously doesn’t help rural deployments much, since they don’t have access to broadband to serve as the backhaul. Other models would have operators setting up a white spaces network to which consumers subscribe.

So now that the celebrations are over, it’s time to get to work. We need business models, devices, networks and likely new ways for technology to squeeze the most broadband out of these limits. It’ll take time, but if white spaces can deliver speeds of 13 Mbps that Sharkey says it can, that’s nothing to scoff at — especially in rural parts of the country.

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