Ofcom Sets Out White Spaces Rules While Skype Offers Free WiFi


The UK’s congested wireless networks may soon be getting an extra traffic lane: today, Ofcom took one further step along the route to putting services into the country’s “white spaces”, or parts of unused radio spectrum between television channels. A similar plan is gradually progressing through the U.S. regulatory system as well.

In the report published today, Ofcom outlined some more detail about how white space wireless broadband would work in practice:

— The regulator called for the creation of a “geolocation database” that would provide live information on open frequencies. Ofcom will invite companies to host and manage these databases, expected sometime in 2011.

— Devices will need to check against these databases before going online in order to avoid interference with existing television services.

— As the FCC has done in the U.S. Ofcom appears to be stepping away from getting involved in discussions of the specific technology or services that might ultimately run over these frequencies, or in licensing companies to be able to use the spectrum.

White space wireless technology has had a lot of attention from the industry and policymakers for the fact that signals travel at a lower frequency than those from regular WiFi. Supporters say that, as a result, they travel further and more reliably through walls and other obstructions.

For one, this could make it a useful way of delivering broadband to rural areas that have yet to get fixed broadband connectivity. It could potentially also open up the market to new entrants and new investment – an argument that has been used by the likes of Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) in the U.S.

A study conducted by Richard Thanki of Perspective Associates suggested in September 2009 that in the U.S., white spaces could generate between $3.9 billion and $7.3 billion in value each year for a total of $100 billion over 15 years. However, it was unclear how that was being calculated.

In the U.S., the white space broadband initiatives have come up against challenges from the broadcast industry, which argues that it is best placed to manage this spectrum and that running new services over it will result in interference. It’s not clear yet that the smaller U.K. market will throw up similar protests.

Ofcom’s white space consultation for industry and public response is scheduled to close December 7, and it expects final regulations and technical specifications to be in place by the end of 2011.

— In separate UK WiFi news, this week, Skype is offering free hotspot WiFi across the UK. To coincide with Internet Week. Users are required to have the latest version of Skype for Mac or PC installed on their devices, and they need to be near a Skype Access-compatible hotspot. Skype Access normally gives users the ability to buy WiFi by the minute. The free offer is valid until November 12.

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