The Devil is in the Details in White Space Debate

The Wireless Innovation Alliance today is making another charge in the war between those trying to keep the unused spectrum between digital television channels clear, and those trying to use that spectrum for wireless broadband. Those so-called white spaces are the last chance for wireless broadband competition in the eyes of the Alliance and the only buffer between interference and your television channels according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Purveyors and users of wireless microphones operating in that spectrum are concerned as well.

Today at an event in Washington, members of the Alliance, including executives from Google, Motorola, Dell and Microsoft are rallying to encourage politicians and the FCC to adopt the use of white space for wireless broadband, and make sure the spectrum stays unlicensed. Gary Grube, a senior fellow at Motorola, says that recent tests prove that broadband can be delivered via the white spaces without interference, so the only issue is how the FCC will rule on it.

“The No. 1 question is, should this go the path of traditional licensed spectrum or unlicensed spectrum?” said Grube. “The technology today is capable of providing a very good experience with an unlicensed approach, and we don’t need a licensed model to control interference.”

A Dell executive compared the white spaces potential to that of another unlicensed technology — Wi-Fi. Neeraj Srivastava, director of technology policy in the office of the CTO at Dell, said white spaces broadband could be a more efficient and economical choice than Wi-Fi for creating a public broadband network. He says the technology would co-exist with cellular and WiMAX for wide area networks and Wi-Fi for in-home, campus-wide or in-office coverage. White spaces broadband has the potential to offer users tens of megabits per second and could boost rural broadband penetration, according to members of the Alliance.

However, public meetings in Washington can only do so much. Until the FCC weighs in with its rules on the spectrum and the specifics of how white spaces broadband may proceed (something expected later this year), it’s hard to say how the technology will roll out — or if it will. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has offered generic statements about making full use of spectrum, but with this sort of issue the devil is in the details.

The technical rules adopted, including whether or not the spectrum will be licensed, will determine the fate of white space services. If the power levels, which govern how loud a device and tower can shout to each other, are set very low, white-space broadband devices would be limited to a smaller range, making large area coverage more expensive. Likewise, the FCC’s decision on how much of a buffer to build between television signals and broadband signals could make it difficult to find enough channels to actually deliver the service in areas with a lot of broadcast channels. That would make the whites spaces broadband difficult to use in urban settings.

It’s possible that when it comes to using white spaces to offer a competitive wireless broadband service, proponents could win the battle of getting the FCC to approve the use of white spaces for broadband, but still lose the war when that broadband is so curtailed that it’s not usable.