FAQ: So What’s Up With These “White Spaces,” Anyway?

Published on December 23, 2011
by Ina Fried

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved the first device that can operate in the so-called “white space” frequencies in between television channels. Although the concept has been kicked around for years, plenty of people are still a bit cloudy on the concept.

Lest it remain a gray area to you, here are some answers to the most common questions:

What is this “white space,” anyway?

White space refers to the range of spectrum available in between the signals used by television stations. By allowing companies to build wireless devices in this area, the Federal Communications Commission is paving the way for new kinds of wireless devices.

What kinds of devices and services could run there?

Unlicensed spectrum opens the door to all kinds of uses, but the use most commonly talked about is to provide fixed and wireless broadband Internet services. It could also prove a good technology for moving video and other bulky data types around the home.

What advantage does white space technology have over today’s Wi-Fi?

Because the white space is in the lower frequencies, devices running in those frequencies could carry signals over longer distances and work better through walls and in other indoor environments.

Why hasn’t anyone used them before?

Although the FCC voted to go ahead with plans to allow devices in the white space as far back as 2008, it has taken until now to approve the first devices and address concerns about potential interference.

What are the concerns?

The biggest concerns have come from the TV industry, which had questions about interference with its signals and equipment; and from performers, broadcasters and others that use wireless microphones that operate in a similar frequency. Even Dolly Parton expressed some concerns early on.

How are these concerns being addressed?

The FCC is creating a way for those who are using wireless microphones to register them. Also, devices that want to access the white space range have to check in with a database to see what spaces are free in their particular area. In addition to approving the first device on Thursday, the FCC also approved the first such database.

“Interference issues won’t go away, but I think it is proven that the industry can use this kind of a model,” said wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma.

How big a market could this be?

Microsoft, a big backer of opening up the spectrum, commissioned a study in 2009 that found that availability of white-space technology could increase just the Wi-Fi-like device market by $3.9 billion to $7.3 billion per year.

So, will this solve all of those worries about spectrum that Verizon and AT&T talk about?

Not directly. The White Space spectrum is unlicensed, meaning any approved device and service can run there. However, it could pave the way for phones and tablets to someday take advantage of white-space capacity on occasion, as is done with Wi-Fi today.

Sharma said to expect the first devices to use white spaces to be noncellular devices. By late 2012 or early the following year, though, we could start to see cellular phones and tablets that have the ability to use white-space services, where available. The big challenge there is it is yet another type of radio that would have to be built into phones — adding cost and complexity.

(Image credit: iStockphoto | gaiamoments)

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