UK Gives Green Light To Fast Wireless Broadband Service, Free To All Comers

The UK is preparing to roll out a new, superfast mobile broadband service that would also more than double the amount of spectrum that is currently available for mobile broadband. Regulator Ofcom today announced plans to go ahead with “white spaces” broadband services, which run on unused spectrum originally allocated to television and radio broadcasters, aiming for the first commercial rollout in 2013.

If plans go ahead, white spaces would present a way of offloading traffic from congested 3G networks as mobile data services continue to grow in popularity, fuelled by the rise in smartphone and tablet use. White spaces services could support speeds of up to 22 Mbps.

Although many other countries (including the U.S.) have considered white spaces broadband services, the UK looks like it may be the first country to actually follow through on this. Today’s announcement is the result of a consultation that started back in November 2010, and focuses only on unused TV spectrum. A separate look at unused FM radio spectrum is being considered by Ofcom.

White space services rely on special routers, and corresponding radios in devices, that are able to find the best frequency for service in a given area.

Taken together, Ofcom estimates that the amount of “white space” that exists in the UK today is equivalent to all the spectrum currently being used for 3G services, “and significantly more in some locations,” given that 3G coverage is not universal and particularly bad in rural areas. By one estimate, White Space services could be generating $100 billion in revenues by 2016.

The spectrum that would be used for white space services is of a low frequency (between 470MHz and 790MHz), which means that the distance it can travel is much further, similar to television or radio services, rather than the WiFi we know today.

Challenges: While Ofcom is laying the groundwork for this service, there is bound to still be some dissent from those already using the spectrum for their own commercial services.

And there is still the issue of making radios for devices to actually be able to use the spectrum. The UK may be getting a leap on other markets, but that might also mean that device makers will not be able to catch up in time, in a way that is cost-effective for them. (Remember the non-starter of DVB-H mobile TV services?) One vote in favor of white spaces broadband is that the IEEE in July published a wireless standard that can now start to get used to build corresponding devices.

More details from Ofcom’s statement issued this morning:

» Applications named by Ofcom for the white space spectrum include “enhanced WiFi” the works over longer ranges than existing WiFi; rural broadband services, especially in areas currently not served by fixed networks or 3G; and machine-to-machine communications.

» Frequencies: Ofcom will let “multiple third parties” keep and update a databases that routers would “consult” in order to find the best frequencies for service, which would not interfere with existing TV services or other users of the spectrum, such as wireless microphone users.

» The spectrum being proposed for white spaces is unlicensed, meaning anyone can use it as long as they do not cause “harmful interference” to other users of the spectrum.

Ofcom says it is now drafting a Statutory Instrument to make white space devices licence exempt, and is continuing to work with TV broadcasters and would-be database providers.