Rural Broadband, Municipal Wi-Fi and Lots of Other Ideas Could Fill Those White Spaces
On the one hand, the decision by the Federal Communications Commission last week to approve the first devices to run in the “white spaces” between television channels was a modest one.
The decision initially covers only one product, and is limited to the pilot city of Wilmington, N.C.
But backers of the technology hope those white spaces prove as big a boost to innovation as the unlicensed spectrum that gave birth to Wi-Fi.
“We see this as a multibillion-dollar industry,” said Rod Dir, CEO of Spectrum Bridge, the company whose database is a key component of the white spaces system approved by the FCC.
White spaces, for the uninitiated, are the spectrum spots in between TV channels. Like the 2.4GHZ spectrum used by several flavors of Wi-Fi, the white spaces are unlicensed spectrum, meaning any device that agrees to play nice with others and gains regulatory approval can operate in the frequency. Devices that are approved to operate in the white spaces spectrum are required to check in with a database to see which channels are available. (For more, check out AllThingsD’s handy FAQ post from last week.)
Over time, analysts imagine a range of wireless and wired devices that can use the white spaces as a sort of “Super Wi-Fi” that can operate over greater distance and perform better indoors.
For now, though, FCC approval is limited to fixed devices using a radio from one supplier, Koos Technical Services. Among the initial uses seen for white spaces are helping bring wireless internet to rural areas and municipal Wi-Fi to smaller cities.
While Wi-Fi often gets spotty after more than 100 meters, and signals often are stymied by walls, white-space signals can carry far further. They can go for several miles, albeit at slower speeds.
“The key element of that for us is the greater coverage that’s possible compared to other services,” said Bill Koos, president of KTS. The company has seen signals that can travel on average two to three miles via antennas that are no more than 30 or 40 feet high.
Some of the uses that have excited officials in Wilmington, Koos said, are the ability to monitor machines, offer wireless Internet access in public places, and even do some video surveillance. Although it doesn’t deliver the kind of speeds needed for, say, streaming Netflix, Koos said the signal is good enough for sending video security footage.
As the radio needed to access the white spaces is brought down to a single chip, the technology should find its way into other products, such as laptops, tablets and phones, perhaps by the middle of 2013. Because of its range and other advantages, Dir said, he expects cellular companies to eventually use the white spaces to handle data-intensive tasks when a signal is available.
“We believe the carrier will eventually migrate to TV white space for offload,” Dir said.
While that is certainly a possibility, wireless analyst Chetan Sharma expects to see the technology far sooner in devices other than cellphones, which are already crammed full of batteries that add cost and sap battery life. That said, the advantages of white spaces, especially its ability to work better indoors, make it a potentially attractive option to carriers struggling with heavy data demands and limited cellular spectrum.
“It remains to be seen,” Sharma said.