All You Need to Know About White Spaces Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to release the first batch of unlicensed wireless spectrum in 25 years tomorrow, which could lead to “Wi-Fi on Steroids,” giving consumers, device makers, entrepreneurs and service providers more connectivity over wider areas.

The FCC is scheduled to vote tomorrow morning on a set of rules that will set the release of this so-called “white spaces broadband” into motion, giving device makers and others the guidelines on how they can use the spectrum. This could inject new competition in the wireless broadband space and provide a boost to technology companies hoping to connect more consumers. Just as Wi-Fi tapped unlicensed spectrum and untethered millions of consumers, white spaces could have a similar effect on a broader scale.

White spaces refers to the unused television spectrum that traditionally existed between channels as buffers or empty spectrum left over or vacated by TV stations through the transition from analog to digital TV. The FCC voted two years ago to approve the unlicensed use of whites spaces. Here’s what you need to know about white spaces:

Why White Spaces Are Hot.

  • Because of its lower frequency, white spaces can offer much broader reach and better penetration through walls than the current spectrum used for Wi-Fi. For example, a Super Wi-Fi network could cover 16 times more area than a traditional Wi-Fi hot spot.
  • White spaces also offer the promise of faster speeds, up to 100 megabits per second. That can be used for end users or to connect local Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • The added range and performance could help connect rural communities, allow schools to light up entire campuses, help service providers relieve burdened cellular networks and could help with things like in-home video streaming and smart meter monitoring.
  • White spaces could trigger a new wave of innovation for device makers and application developers. A white spaces study commissioned by Microsoft (s MSFT) found that the use of white spaces could add $3.9 to $7.3 billion in economic activity a year.

So What’s the Problem?

  • Since white spaces would remain unlicensed, the use of it could interfere with local broadcasters.
  • The use of wireless of microphones could also be compromised by interference from Super Wi-Fi devices.

Who Cares About This Anyway?

  • Technology heavyweights like Google (s GOOG), Dell (s DELL), Microsoft and others have rallied on behalf of white spaces.
  • The National Association of Broadcasters has filed a lawsuit to halt the use of white spaces because of fears of interference.
  • Theatrical groups and sports franchises have also raised concerns about interference for wireless microphones.
  • Consumer groups such as Free Press, Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and others have pushed for the use of white spaces.

The Devil is in the Details:

  • In order to minimize interference, the FCC is establishing a database of existing channels so that new devices must steer clear of those bands. The question is how often will devices need to consult the database to avoid interference. Too often, and it can be burdensome on device makers. Too infrequently, and it could lead to interference if devices stray into protected areas.
  • The FCC will name a private company or companies, perhaps as early as tomorrow, to serve as the database administrator. Google and others have applied for the job. The entity that administers the database could play an important role in how white spaces are used.
  • The FCC could also set larger buffers around existing channels or set aside whole channels for wireless microphone users, which could eat into the available spectrum for unlicensed use.
  • It’s unclear at what power device makers can operate at, which could also limit the range of Super Wi-Fi devices.

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Where You Can Find White Spaces Networks.

There have been been several tests of white spaces including: connecting a rural school in Claudeville, Va., a low-cost broadband and water sensing project in Wilmington, N.C. and a test at Rice University where researchers are building devices that can switch between white spaces and traditional Wi-Fi.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d):

Google’s Latest White Space Push: The Smart Grid

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user herdeirodocaos33.