Nov/Dec 2011

I’m betting you or a family member will unwrap at least one cool, wireless holiday gift this year. It could be anything: a new cellphone, a game console, a wireless door lock set, an ereader, or a tablet computer. These gifts provide convenience, security, and entertainment. A wireless BBQ thermometer can tell me when the meat’s perfectly done, or dad can enjoy pictures sent from a family member’s smartphone to his digital picture frame.

For the magic to happen, devices must connect to a network, which could be another device, a base station, or a router connected to the Internet. A gaggle of wireless technologies are used for these connections: cellular, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, two-way paging, etc. Soon, some devices will also use TV “white space” to connect.

What’s TV white space? “White spaces” are vacant patches of wireless spectrum that either protect broadcast channels from interference or just aren’t in use. A 2005 study commissioned by the U.S. National Science Foundation measured wireless spectrum occupancy in six cities and found an average rate of 5.2% across all locations, with New York City highest at 13.1% average usage. During the ensuing six years, spectrum usage may have improved, but the point is the same: There is gobs of empty spectrum. TV stations and cellphone networks use their spectrum the most efficiently, with just more than 50% occupied. There should be plenty of TV white space to go around, particularly in rural areas served by fewer broadcasters.

TV white-space products are just now coming to market after years of regulatory rule making, development of underlying processes and procedures, and the engineering, testing, and certification of TV white space devices. Neul Ltd. was first with its NeulNET white space base stations and terminals.

The company provided hardware for a TV white space trial in Cambridge, U.K., last June that also included Microsoft, British Telecom, BSkyB, BBC, Nokia, and Adaptrum. Spectrum Bridge has conducted several successful TV white space trials the U.S., jointly with Google, Microsoft, and Dell, delivering smart grid, medical data, “smart city,” and municipal broadband applications. Others jumping into white space technology include Hewlett Packard, Intel, Philips, and Samsung. Clearly, these companies see a future in white spaces.

Why are TV white spaces important? They’re free and they’re powerful.

“Free” is a big driver. The FCC’s 2008 decision to allow unlicensed use of TV white spaces was the first expansion in U.S., unlicensed spectrum since it opened up the 2.4-gigahertz band in 1985—spectrum that now supports millions of Wi-Fi devices. At the time, 2.4 gigahertz was considered “junk spectrum” because of its relatively weak signal and limited range (100 feet indoors, 300 feet outdoors). Innovative technology companies and consumers hungry for wireless local-area networks turned that junk into gold. Wi-Fi has significantly increased our access to information, entertainment, and all sorts of services that improve our quality of life and connect us to family, friends, and communities. The regulators and companies behind the TV white space movement are hoping this new allocation of unlicensed, high-quality spectrum will spur another innovation tidal wave.

Secondly, TV white spaces are great spectrum. In the U.S., they range from 54 to 698 megahertz—low-frequency signals travel farther, cover larger areas, and penetrate buildings better than higher-frequency signals. TV white space signals can carry as far as 6.2 miles (10 km)—100 times farther than outdoor Wi-Fi on its best day. Data throughput speeds are also very high, as much as 16 megabits per second.

Because of this, the FCC and U.S. Congress like to call TV white spaces “Wi-Fi on steroids” or “Super Wi-Fi,” even though white space devices don’t use the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. But the comparison is still apt: All a customer or business needs to do to use TV white spaces is plug in a TV white space base station, connect it to the Internet, then authenticate whatever TV white space devices they want to use with the base station, and they’re on the air. TV white spaces’ large coverage areas allow colleges, businesses, communities, and farmers to inexpensively set up fast local data networks that cover their entire campus or ranch. Microsoft installed a “white fi” network at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters in late 2010, covering all 500 acres of the campus with only two TV white space base stations. It would take hundreds of Wi-Fi routers to cover the same area. Local businesses can track valuable things and people within a six-mile radius, using a network that is simple and doesn’t require contracting with a mobile operator or monthly fees.

TV white spaces can address a wide range of applications and services—anything that can be done over Wi-Fi, only better. TV white space base stations, with their superior in-building penetration, can bring broadband access to areas within a home or building that are difficult to cover. The smart grid, hospital records, community broadband, campus networks, and rural broadband are obvious white space applications. Even consumer electronic equipment can benefit.

Is anything holding white spaces back? One difficulty is white spaces aren’t available in the same quantity everywhere. At my home in Long Beach, Calif., the only white space channel available for use is Channel 2, which means I can’t use any portable white space devices in my home because portable devices are only allowed on Channels 21 and higher. Any white space device I use must be fixed and connected to the Internet. White space availability is generally better in less populated areas, so the solutions that make it to market first may be applications that benefit rural areas, such as community broadband.

Also, Congress doesn’t seem to be able to leave white spaces alone. During the debt ceiling debate this summer, U.S. legislators put forward a proposal to auction the TV white spaces already approved for unlicensed use by the FCC—hoping for a financial windfall that could help close the budget gap. Why anyone would pay for non-exclusive access to unlicensed spectrum is a mystery to me. The proposed legislation would also allow one bidder to outbid the total of all other bids, in which case, the one bidder would be granted exclusive access to the white space—effectively killing the use of unlicensed white spaces by individuals, businesses, and communities. The proposed legislation has drawn fire from the tech community and appears stalled at the time this article was written. Let’s hope it is dead by the time this magazine makes it to print.

While you won’t be able to get your hands on TV white space products in time for this year’s gift-giving season, by next year I expect to see white space-enabled routers, laptops, and maybe even cellphones on retailer shelves. In the meantime, we’ll just have to muddle through with Wi-Fi. I’m dreaming of a white (spaces) Christmas in 2012.

Laurie Lamberth is asking Santa to leave an Oregon Scientific wireless BBQ thermometer underneath the Christmas tree this year. Learn about Laurie’s strategy and business development consultancy at

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