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Will White Spaces for Broadband Work for Rural Areas?

FCC Approves Technology; Wilmington Deploys White Space Network

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As the FCC struggles to discover and allocate more spectrum for broadband use, the Commission, in a unanimous vote, approved the use of “white space” for broadband. What is “white space,” and what does it have to do with broadband? White spaces are unused bands of spectrum between television stations, left after television signals went digital.

The ruling is significant because wireless broadband requires the use of spectrum, and spectrum is a limited resource. This is the first time in over 20 years that a significant block of spectrum has been made available for unlicensed use. In addition, broadband experts say these bands offer the best promulgation characteristics and are available nationwide.

Broadcasters were opposed to the plan because they feared interference with existing TV signals, and some wireless devices such as microphones. The FCC notes interference as a potential issue, and the order requires the maintenance of a “reasonable separation distance” between white space and wireless microphone usage, thereby allaying interference concerns.

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This ruling is a victory for Microsoft, Dell, Motorola, Google, and several other large companies in the broadband industry, who widely supported the measure. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski hailed the ruling as a way to provide “unique opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs.” Some of these innovations will spur development of stronger and faster wireless networks which are being called “super Wi-Fi” because of the signals’ ability to pass through obstacles much easier than other technologies such as Wi-Fi. The use of white space for rural areas holds more promise than large urban areas, because of the sheer number of television stations in metropolitan areas, limiting the amount of space available between the stations.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps commented in the order: “Throughout the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, I have emphasized the countless ways that transformative broadband technology intersects with nearly all aspects of our everyday lives. The opportunities created by white space technologies are endless: whether it’s increasing the reach of broadband to unserved and underserved populations, including tribal lands; whether it’s giving local governments tools for implementing smart city, eco-friendly wireless applications; whether it’s providing robust wireless coverage for school children, inside and outside the classroom. The possibilities are just about limitless.”

Wilmington, North Carolina has the distinction of being the first city to use white space (the unused frequency between television channels)for broadband. While the city uses a fiber connection for municipal applications, areas such as wetlands and other environmentally protected areas have previously been off-limits for broadband coverage. Now the city can monitor real-time water quality and traffic conditions on roads which did not have access to a broadband connection.

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Using white spaces for broadband is not a new idea, but the Wilmington experiment is the first municipal application of the technology, which follows the recent FCC approval of the first white space device late last year.

Using white space to provide broadband service is part of the FCC's overall plan to find more wireless spectrum, and expand broadband availability across the country. Although using white space is experimental at this point, it could have a place in the national broadband plan, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas such as Wilmington's wetlands.

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Some proponents of white space technology claim the market for white space applications exceeds the $100 billion wi-fi market. White space technology exploits two of the biggest weaknesses of wi-fi - the ability to penetrate physical barriers such as walls an trees, and its comparatively longer range. Because white space is located in a lower frequency range, signals are able to travel longer distances through physical barriers which limits wi-fi signals.

Spectrum Bridge and KTS Wireless are the two companies involved in the early testing efforts. Spectrum Bridge is the developer of the white space database which manages device access to dynamic frequencies. KTS Wireless is the first manufacturer to introduce a device which uses white space frequencies.

Wilmington was chosen as the first site to deploy a commercial network it was because it was the first U.S. city to make the switch from analog to digital TV. As a result, the coastal North Carolina city had early access to white spaces and begin testing applications in 2010. In addition to the technological reasons, Wilmington also provided an ideal mix of geography and topology to highlight some of the obvious advantages provided by white space technology.

The ruling is the first step to actually using white space for broadband. Devices that will actually be able to utilize spectrum in the white spaces between television stations are years away from being available for consumer use.

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