Remember those stern FCC warnings back in 2009 telling us to ditch our analog TVs or else? The thought of someone still watching an analog TV seemed like punishment enough. The FCC anti-analog campaign seemed an irresponsible use of regulatory money lost in a time warp. Turns out, at the time, the campaign was part of a plan to spawn a monster. It wasn’t a hoax. The FCC robbed analog TVs to pay future broadband users. And those unused gaps between channels in the UHF spectrum called TV white spaces may soon light rural America with wireless broadband.
Clearing forgotten spectrum vacated by TV stations helped usher in what the FCC called “Super Wi-Fi,” or the latest wireless broadband solution for municipalities, universities and broadband enthusiasts located off the grid. The Super Wi-Fi tag may not stick because white spaces possess different qualities than Wi-Fi networks we currently access.
Working on a lower frequency, Super Wi-Fi packs less bandwidth than Wi-Fi. Real throughput is based on available 6 MHz channels in a given area. Meaning the more spectrum available, the faster the service.
To muddy the waters further, the IEEE created a standard for the technology called WRAN (Wireless Regional Area Networks), a catchall for both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint configurations delivering up to 22 Mbps per channel without interfering with reception of existing TV broadcast stations.
Whether labeled Super Wi-Fi or WRAN, white spaces offer a new way to solve an old problem. As rural areas try once again to cross the digital divide. Meanwhile, equipment makers must deliver compatible equipment and chipmakers must deliver a compatible chip. Backhaul networks with big sunk costs pose different challenges. Both planning and cost make major build-outs difficult for rural service providers. But given time to incubate, the technology’s redeeming qualities are undeniable.
Super-Wi Fi, by standard, covers approximately 16 times more area than today’s Wi-Fi hot spots. And holds super powers a Starbuck’s network can’t summon. The IEEE supports up to 100 kilometers of network coverage. Television frequencies not only push long distances, but also can penetrate trees, buildings, and survive bad weather. And with broadcasters operating fewer TV stations in rural areas, Super Wi-Fi looks game changing to the underserved in tough-to-reach regions of the country. Wireless Internet service providers (WISP) target rural areas and may have found the magic bullet for broadband-starved businesses and consumers.
Still experimental in practice, industry experts acknowledge a typical business model for white spaces has yet to materialize. The broadband that urbanites take for granted creates new opportunities in remote areas. Local or county governments could partner and leverage a custom network. Commercial models may take e-commerce and multi-media deeper into the economy, making businesses more competitive, startups more viable, and talent easier to recruit.
Manufacturers of market-ready, or developing Super Wi-Fi software and equipment envision “Smart Cities” with proprietary wireless networks transforming small towns and less populated counties into more attractive destinations for those tethered to mobile devices.
Public safety likes the real-time video capabilities and broadband connections into parks, or over rough terrain. Really, public safety likes getting police, fire and rescue updated with security and safety tools used in urban environments.
500 colleges and universities have teamed with Google and Microsoft to bring Super Wi-Fi to campus. Code named Air.U, the consortium will introduce Super-Wi Fi networks to select rural campuses as early as next year.
The FCC officially gave white spaces the green light in 2010, voting unanimously to allow unlicensed use of unused television spectrum. After creating usage standards, and overcoming opposition, the FCC has since kept white spaces somewhat sacred, and away from carriers stockpiling spectrum, with no interest in developing rural networks.
The FCC’s stance bought equipment makers and service providers time to catch up. But have they? Super-Wi Fi is an expensive proposition. Otherwise rural America wouldn’t have a broadband problem.
Companies like Spectrum Bridge, xG Technology and Carlson Wireless are doing cool stuff with white spaces, including channel databases, cognitive radios and TV band devices. Most of the first movers can hang a few patents on the wall, with resumes cutting deep into the wireless spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed.
Technical barriers are being broken down. Compatible equipment is on the way. Now, potential buyers need to start buying Super Wi-Fi. Classic growing pains of any new technology aside, when will the price be right?
Engineering a giant hotspot requires expensive infrastructure full of backhaul links and base stations. At this point, DSL or microwave seems like the backhaul of choice. But network providers making this kind of investment need a sustainable revenue model. Problem is, do enough broadband buyers live within the realistic range of today’s Super-Wi Fi technology. We’re talking a six-mile radius, creating a hefty bill for customers in No Trees, Iowa.
The clock is ticking on white spaces. FCC says airwaves now must go to auction.
Up to this point, white spaces have been unlicensed and available for broadband consumption. Pass an interference test through one of many database administrators vetted by the FCC and you’re in business. However, with FCC plans to auction up to 120 megahertz of spectrum, believers in white spaces may have a new speed bump to manage.
The FCC hopes to hold this spectrum auction by 2014 – aggressive for something so complex. And enticing TV broadcasters to surrender valuable airwaves to the FCC will be no easy task. Although it’s difficult to forecast how this impending auction will affect white spaces in rural areas, industry leaders remain confident the FCC will keep enough channels on the lower end of the spectrum to satisfy Super-Wi Fi requirements.
Despite the political wrangling and technical challenges, the industry is moving forward. WISPs and vendors are sprouting projects in areas once considered impassable or cost prohibitive. Air.U wants to blanket campuses with broadband. The Wireless Future Project is the policy wonk fighting to keep our airwaves free. And for development and standards, the WhiteSpace Alliance calls themselves the “enabler of the emerging white spaces ecosystem.” Building stronger industry legs is critical because investment and momentum may dictate how much spectrum the FCC auctions in 2014.
Super Wi-Fi is not fully cooked and early adopters may suffer sticker shock. But we won’t be laughing next time the FCC mentions analog TV.