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Super Wi-Fi or white spaces, what’s up with unlicensed broadband?

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The UK’s equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission laid out plans to use white spaces broadband in the UK, and expects to see such networks in use by 2013 according to a report issued Thursday. Ofcom, the British regulator believes so-called white spaces, which are the fallow areas of spectrum between digital TV bands, could be used to help mobile operators offload traffic from their networks.

Ofcom also suggests that it will evaluate using more spectrum for such a purpose with unused FM radio bands. This report comes on the heels of a successful test of white spaces broadband in Cambridge earlier this summer. This might be a footnote for broadband nerds except for the fact that the UK appears much closer to white spaces than the U.S. where the effort originated. Despite the U.S. having approved rules related to offering service in white spaces a year ago, we’re still waiting for devices, services and details about deployments.

In the U.S., where the FCC has taken to calling the service Super Wi-Fi, a combination of rules designed to keep those trying to use the spectrum for broadband from interfering with those trying to use the spectrum for TV or wireless microphones have made the deployment of services and building devices a time-consuming challenge. A year after the rules were approved there are just a few test networks, no commercial devices and nine companies that have volunteered to operate databases that will help keep white spaces signals from interfering with nearby broadcasts.

In an interview with Peter Stanforth, CTO at Spectrum Bridge (see disclosure), one of the licensed database providers for white spaces in the U.S., I was assured that despite the relative quiet, work was still progressing on actual deployments. For example, Stanforth said some radios that will work with the databases are going through the FCC certification process and he expects the FCC to approve something before the end of the year. “It’s a struggle because no one has ever done this before,” he said.

However, commercial radios won’t be out until the end of next year, which means real, commercial devices won’t be out until mid-2013 if we’re being really optimistic. To complicate things further the FCC and Congress are considering ways to take back some of the airwaves currently used by digital TV broadcasters and allocating some of that for licensed, cellular service. Doing that, theoretically could reduce the airwaves available for white spaces. While the nation waits for white spaces, which first became available as a result of the digital TV transition that occurred in 2009, the stated use for those airwaves have changed.

Instead of being a utopian vision of mobile broadband, which Google (s goog) and others portrayed it as back in 2008, it has morphed more into a utilitarian way to provide broadband to rural areas at a lower cost than laying fiber. So goodbye to white spaces as the future home for an economical Internet of things and hello to it as a WISP of sorts for rural America. In the UK it’s still discussed as potential backhaul, but perhaps that vision will also change.

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.

7 Responses to “Super Wi-Fi or white spaces, what’s up with unlicensed broadband?”

  1. Trap Dipole

    Little white space spectrum will be available in urban areas under the current scheme. Ironic that Wyoming wireless ISPs who detest Google and net neutrality might actually be in a position to use white space spectrum.

  2. Brent W. Hopkins

    All radio spectrum is a public resource owned by the people. Don’t be to quick to be a cheerleader for government giveaways of spectrum to the entrenched communications cartels.

  3. Chris Lyons

    Why would companies invest millions to develop products that operate in spectrum that might not be available because the gov’t decided to sell it? I think it’s the uncertainty that is holding everything up. Opening the white spaces may indeed spur technical and economic development over the long term, but auctioning the spectrum to cellular carriers will generate billions instantly – and I suspect that carries more weight in Washington right now.

  4. J.H. Snider

    I’d like to know the relative amount and quality of the spectrum allocated to unlicensed devices in the white spaces in both the U.S. and U.K. The original plan in the U.S. was to have a meaningful amount of white spaces allocated to unlicensed. Due to the power of the broadcast lobby, the white spaces available for unlicensed was significantly whittled down until, it could be argued, not much more than the dregs were left. Not surprisingly, commercial interest in so-called Super WiFi also dropped. But in the U.K., the broadcast lobby isn’t as all-powerful (this largely has to do with its parliamentary system), as evidenced by its digital transition, which did a much better job of limiting socially harmful windfalls to the broadcast lobby. This suggests the U.K. may also have done a better job with the white spaces allocated for unlicensed.

    –J.H. Snider, author of “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Power” and

  5. Aside from one comment by a paranoid – there’s a significant likelihood that the Department of Homeland Insecurity gets to make choices about White Space before the needs of ordinary mortals come under consideration.

    One of those areas written up by the 9/11 Commission – remember that? – which hasn’t been implemented because Congressional lobbyists aren’t especially united over who gets the profits. So, concepts are still floundering around years later in one of the closets of our do-nothing politicians on the Hill. But, that will be one of the excuses offered.

    Some or all of that spectrum was supposed to be assigned priority to first responders.