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White Space in the Great White North

Mark Goldberg

There is growing interest in the US for the FCC to look at White Space to enable more options for broadband wireless in rural areas.

What is White Space? Last weekend, the Sunday NY Times published an article about wireless services that included this description:

In many areas, not all broadcast [television] channels are in use. The unused channels are "white spaces" of high-quality spectrum that could be made available to local Internet service providers. Unlike the much higher frequency of Wi-Fi, television broadcast frequencies can travel for miles and penetrate walls, providing a much broader range for Internet service.

There is a coalition of eight technology companies driving the discussion in the US: Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung Electro-Mechanics. Their objective is to get FCC approval for a generic device that will detect unused spectrum to be made available for broadband internet.

There are two versions of the technology: one that is fixed mounted and installed professionally, which can include a manual verification that the spectrum is clear for non-TV applications; and the other is a flexible, portable consumer unit that would automatically sense "white space."

The National Association of Broadcasters in the US is opposed to the portable version, citing concerns that the technology could cause interference to digital TV signals.

Over the summer, the FCC conducted tests of technology supplied by Microsoft and it wrote a negative report [PDF]. However, Microsoft responded that the FCC used a broken unit and failed to try the back-up unit that had been supplied to it. The coalition has submitted new test results from working units.

NAB isn't impressed, stating [PDF] that the impact of these kinds of failures are precisely the motivation for their concerns. They argue that defective units could result in entire neighbourhoods experiencing the blue screen of death on their TV sets, with no ability to trace the source of the problem.

Once millions of unlicensed devices are in consumers' hands, they cannot be traced or recalled. Interference may come from the next apartment or from a neighbor down the street. To protect consumers' DTV sets and the DTV transition, personal and portable unlicensed devices should NOT be allowed to operate in the TV band.

Canada's spectrum policy is generally that of "fast follower", recognizing the economic advantages associated with aligning its spectrum allocation to match the purposes assigned south of the border.

White Space will be a discussion worth watching.

This article originally posted on the Telecom Trends weblog.

By Mark Goldberg, Telecommunications Consultant
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