Looking Ahead to the World of White Spaces

When the Federal Communications Commission convenes its monthly meeting next week, the commissioners are planning to vote on an order that will set the final rules governing the use of unlicensed television spectrum known as white spaces for wireless Internet service.

The FCC voted in November 2008 to release the white-space spectrum for unlicensed broadband networks, but in the time since has been meeting with various stakeholders to determine the final rules for the implementation of the technology.

Chief among the commission’s concerns is to ensure that the new devices do not interfere with television broadcasts and wireless microphones operating in the adjacent spectrum.

While the FCC is still drafting its final order, a panel of white-spaces advocates speaking at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, expressed concerns that the interference restrictions will overreach and substantially limit the effectiveness of the new networks.

“There’s a lot of set-asides for wireless microphones and we worry that if all of this stuff goes through it could undermine the ability of white space devices to flourish,” said Paula Boyd, regulatory affairs counsel at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), a long-time proponent of releasing the white-space spectrum.

“From our perspective, the technology is ready. There’s no reason to delay. There’s no reason to step back,” Boyd said.

But broadcasters have continued to raise concerns about interference with local stations, and are pressing for limitations on the height of antennas used in white-space networks that some advocates worry would hobble the effectiveness of the technology.

At Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash., the company has built a white-space network to demonstrate the viability of the concept, and the FCC has granted experimental licenses to providers to establish service for the public in a handful of communities.

The first such network launched in Claudville, a small town in rural southwestern Virginia where the hilly, densely wooded terrain left residents with satellite as their only option for broadband, though most who purchased residential Internet service opted for dial-up.

“For many of these folks it’s either unlicensed wireless broadband or it’s dial-up,” said Stephen Coran, regulatory counsel at the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), a trade association whose members provide service to rural and remote areas that are often unserved by the large phone and cable companies. “I will tell you that there are a number of WISPs that still have dial-up customers, and we’d all like to see [dial-up] go away, and the way to do it is via white spaces.”

Much of the promise of white-space spectrum owes to the strong propagation characteristics that make it an appealing solution for rural and remote areas, where the harsh physical environment and low population density have deterred large incumbent providers from extending service.

“The beauty of the white spaces is it affords for a better range. It goes through the walls and it goes through trees,” Boyd said.

“It really changes the economics in terms of things that you could or couldn’t do before,” added Christian Duffus, vice president of corporate development at Spectrum Bridge, which helped build the Claudville network and has set up other deployments under experimental FCC licenses.

Spectrum Bridge has partnered with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), another prominent backer of white-space technology, to develop a smart-grid network built on the spectrum. Just yesterday, the two companies announced a new white-space network at an Ohio hospital.

In addition to delivering high-speed connectivity to unserved areas, white-spaces technology could also help mobile carriers grapple with the surging data usage that has at times overwhelmed their networks, just carriers have been offloading much of their network traffic to Wi-Fi hotspots, supporters say.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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