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Will We Soon Have Gigantic Wireless Hotspots?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is poised to take action on “white spaces” — the wireless frequencies between those used by digital television broadcasters — through the implementation of a database designed to prevent interference between wireless device use of white spaces and digital television broadcasts. This could remove the final hurdle for use of white spaces, says the Wall Street Journal, enabling wireless hotspots with far greater range and coverage than today’s Wi-Fi networks. Proponents of such unlicensed wireless availability include computer and tech companies like Google (s goog), Microsoft (s msft), Dell (s dell) and HP (s hpq), while the broadcast industry is still concerned about potential interference that white space devices could bring to digital programming.

Part of the FCC’s agreement to allow for white spaces initially included the formation of a central geo-location database of licensed spectrum use by broadcasters around the country. Such a database would help mitigate potential interference between unlicensed spectrum use and licensed broadcasts. Essentially, it would ensure that white space network access on a smartphone, for example, would have zero impact on any digital television broadcasts nearby. Although far more television content is provided by wired methods — think cable and fiber — over-the-air digital television is still watched by many, so the FCC can’t allow for potential interference issues. Other details have to be addressed as well: The level of transmission power, for example, may require FCC guidelines, else devices become confused by a wireless shouting match.

The white space situation arose a few years ago as part of the transition to digital television in the U.S.; certain frequencies were freed up for non-television use. Indeed, the 700 MHz spectrum auction netted nearly $20 billion as Verizon (s vz), AT&T (s t) and others took advantage of the freed-up wireless resource. However, not all the spectrum is in use, which means there’s opportunity. Spectrum Bridge (see disclosure below) is one of those seeking to offer unlicensed wireless access with the unused channels and has successfully trialed the use of a white space network in a rural area of Virginia: a typical place where a cellular 3G signal may not be available. The white space spectrum in this case covers the final few miles from wired backhaul, enabling residents to wirelessly connect to the web over a range wider than that of Wi-Fi. The unlicensed nature means consumers have the freedom to set up their own networks, just as they do today with Wi-Fi.

If the FCC does remove the final roadblocks for white space network use as expected, an entirely new industry could rise, similar to that of the Wi-Fi market over the past dozen or so years. New and updated baseband chips to support such frequencies will be needed for smartphones and notebooks. Municipal wireless projects could see new life because the greater range of white space spectrum could reduce implementation costs of city-wide hotspots. Web-connected devices like e-book readers, media players, smart meters and even vehicles might rely less on 3G or 4G networks for connectivity due to free or lower-cost white space network access. The future isn’t written yet, but white spaces could reduce the hunting and seeking of that short-range hotspot.

(Disclosure: 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.)

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Google’s Latest White Space Push: The Smart Grid

8 Responses to “Will We Soon Have Gigantic Wireless Hotspots?”

  1. I’m all for utilizing any unused spectrum and for the financial gain it might represent for the public. However, especially if we’re talking long range, capacity would be limited. If whitespace can be allocated, it would be better to organize it into cells, albeit large ones in rural areas, to obtain an overall system capacity to make the effort financially viable.

    Remember that total system capacity for a given swath of spectrum is proportional to the number of cells, whether it be the carriers networks, WiFi, or whitespace. (In total WiFi’s capacity is so huge because of its short range which allows a large number of cells to be packed in a given area.) It would be a shame to waste the potential of whitespace by making the coverage areas too large.

  2. You can search the SpectrumBridge database at to see how much (or little) spectrum is available in your area. Rural areas have lots; urban areas tend to have a few channels available for fixed stations and few to none for portable devices.

  3. Unless I’m missing something, “white spaces” will only be effective and have any meaningful bandwidth available in exceedingly rural settings, such as the trial in Claudville, VA, (population 5, just joking, but not by much).

    A better solution might be to lease spectrum from license holders, such as broadcasters, both Full Power and Low Power TV stations (and others up to the 500 MHz called for in teh NBP). This would involve a market-based spectrum exchange, where anyone can buy bandwidth for whatever purpose.

    Those that lease bandwidth would be allowed to operate using a modulation scheme other than ATSC, enabling a more-efficient
    use of bandwidth while still allowing for a free over-the-air tv component.

    Throw in a spectrum fee from the broadcasters back to Congress and budget needs are met, while at the same time meeting the stated goal of the National Broadband Plan (NBP)ubiquitous broadband at an affordable price.

    Why this may not work: It’s too simple and wouldn’t allow the wireless carriers to hoard spectrum.

  4. Coincidence this is posted the same day as Apple’s big media event, Kevin? Either way, great news for them. Earlier today I wrote on my site how iPod wasn’t just destroying the media industry but disintermediating carriers. This FCC step gets them (and us) one step closer! Sure wish government didn’t move at government speed in this case — and that tv broadcasters weren’t so powerful.