Are White Spaces the Future of Mobile Broadband?

iStock_000008266480XSmallClaudville, Va., is a small town of about 1,000 people that was served primarily by dial-up Internet service. But thanks to a group of technology companies it is now home to the nation’s first functioning white spaces network, an alternative form of wireless broadband. The white spaces trial network will offer both an alternate broadband network as well as a model by which the government might be able to better utilize scarce spectrum resources available to it for delivering ubiquitous mobile broadband.

The creators of the network are Spectrum Bridge, Dell (s dell), Microsoft (s msft) and the TDF Foundation. (Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.) The network uses a fiber connection brought to the edge of the town, thanks to a TDF grant that provides a 2Mbps connection back to the web and relies on white spaces broadband for the middle-mile access to several Wi-Fi access points around town. With this setup, the town now has access to broadband, although with such limited backhaul, it’s still accessing the web through a straw.

Neeraj Srivastava, director of technology policy in the office of the CTO at Dell, says that the intention isn’t to use white spaces primarily as middle-mile access, although since it can reach speeds of 100Mbps, it could fulfill that function. Instead, the plan is to use it for last-mile access and embed white spaces radios in laptops and devices along with Wi-Fi  and cellular radios if the end user wants one.  However, because there are no white spaces radios, the project is using Wi-Fi to bridge the gap.

Srivastava predicts that white spaces radios are still years away, and said that before white spaces become more than a demo project, the FCC has to set final rules for using the spectrum without interfering with broadcast TV signals, a process that may take longer since the agency is so focused on its national broadband plan. After the FCC sets its rules, a standard needs to be developed and manufactures will have to produce chips for that standard. Then those chips will have to be tested and designed into devices, so we’re talking years rather than months.

However, the spectrum has promise for delivering mobile broadband to more users for less, because it’s not licensed to a carrier. Instead, it sits in the channels between the digital TV bands; worries over interference with TV channels and wireless microphones caused the debate over white spaces to get nasty last year. To ensure that folks using white spaces for broadband don’t cause interference on TV delivery, the companies deploying the white spaces network had to build out a database that would scan for the broadcast signals.

For this network, Spectrum Bridge provides that database, but CEO Rick Rotondo, chief marketing officer, says that aspects such as using a database to avoid interference might be a good model for freeing up other occupied spectrum to use for mobile broadband.  Given that folks believe we need between 150 and 400 MHz of spectrum to keep up with the demand for mobile broadband, how we adapt to the constraints of delivering broadband in between the spaces allocated for other services would help us use existing spectrum more efficiently and may also open the door to other allocations.