US regulator opens up 'white space'
Whilst the US presidential elections were making headlines all over the world, the five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously approved the opening-up of the TV frequency spectrum to new services. When the US completes its switch-over from analogue to digital terrestrial TV broadcasting, the unused channels will be available for other uses, such as internet access.
The use of this 'white space' has been the subject of bitter wrangling. The decisive voting result was preceded by heavy lobbying of the regulator over recent months. Various companies who wish to be involved in this new sector have created special interest groups such as the White Spaces Coalition and the Wireless Innovation Alliance. The lobbying has contained nearly as much emotion and pathos as the concurrent presidential election. "Free the ether" was the rallying cry of proponents of the plan, supported by industry heavyweights such as Google and Microsoft, whilst opponents of the plan from the television industry see it as a dark day for free TV reception.
'White space' is a concept for realising wireless internet access or other mobile services in the unused spectrum between digital television channels. It will, according to its broad coalition of proponents, make possible cheap internet access in sparsely populated regions where cable and DSL are unavailable. As yet, however, no receivers exist and there are no providers – nor is there any kind of business model.
A few prototypes were tested by the FCC merely to demonstrate feasibility – that the units could reliably identify occupied channels and not cause interference. Despite some initial snags, the regulator now appears to have been persuaded, following a declaration from the technical department that this was successfully achieved under laboratory conditions by the devices submitted by Microsoft, Motorola and Philips. The industry plans to develop mass-market devices and applications over the next twelve to 18 months.
What they will look like is anyone's guess. Google and Microsoft have expressed strong public support for white space, but have yet to fill in the details. "Wi-Fi on steroids" is how supporters, such as Google's Larry Page, are describing it. It remains to be seen how this fulsome promise will be realised. The companies refer questions regarding specific deployment scenarios to their lobbyists, who in turn have little to say on the matter.
"The full potential of white space technology has yet to be imagined," was the line from a spokesperson for the Washington-based Wireless Innovation Alliance, which has thrown itself with gusto into the battle for public opinion. The industry's initial priority has been to minimise barriers to access to the spectrum. This has now been granted, through the FCC's approval for unlicensed use of white space.
A curious coalition of TV channels, concert organisers, theatre groups and churches set out to prevent this and were able to organise some political support in Washington. Whilst the TV industry considers the spectrum in question as being under its sovereignty, church and cultural representatives fear that the new technology may interfere with neighbouring wireless-microphone frequencies. According to theatre groups, who even have Dolly Parton on their side, this could mean the end of Broadway shows.
The FCC decision means that white space has been opened up, but it remains far from conquered. Without doubt the procedure has potential. The same, however, could be said for an alternative wireless protocol which was also supposed to finally bring broadband internet to the provinces. The excitement around WiMAX has, however, in the meantime waned considerably. White space has better prospects, as it represents a lower frequency band and has a longer range. It is now up to the industry, however, to realise that promise.