Super Wi-Fi or white spaces, what’s up with unlicensed broadband?

The UK’s equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission laid out plans to use white spaces broadband in the UK, and expects to see such networks in use by 2013 according to a report issued Thursday. Ofcom, the British regulator believes so-called white spaces, which are the fallow areas of spectrum between digital TV bands, could be used to help mobile operators offload traffic from their networks.

Ofcom also suggests that it will evaluate using more spectrum for such a purpose with unused FM radio bands. This report comes on the heels of a successful test of white spaces broadband in Cambridge earlier this summer. This might be a footnote for broadband nerds except for the fact that the UK appears much closer to white spaces than the U.S. where the effort originated. Despite the U.S. having approved rules related to offering service in white spaces a year ago, we’re still waiting for devices, services and details about deployments.

In the U.S., where the FCC has taken to calling the service Super Wi-Fi, a combination of rules designed to keep those trying to use the spectrum for broadband from interfering with those trying to use the spectrum for TV or wireless microphones have made the deployment of services and building devices a time-consuming challenge. A year after the rules were approved there are just a few test networks, no commercial devices and nine companies that have volunteered to operate databases that will help keep white spaces signals from interfering with nearby broadcasts.

In an interview with Peter Stanforth, CTO at Spectrum Bridge (see disclosure), one of the licensed database providers for white spaces in the U.S., I was assured that despite the relative quiet, work was still progressing on actual deployments. For example, Stanforth said some radios that will work with the databases are going through the FCC certification process and he expects the FCC to approve something before the end of the year. “It’s a struggle because no one has ever done this before,” he said.

However, commercial radios won’t be out until the end of next year, which means real, commercial devices won’t be out until mid-2013 if we’re being really optimistic. To complicate things further the FCC and Congress are considering ways to take back some of the airwaves currently used by digital TV broadcasters and allocating some of that for licensed, cellular service. Doing that, theoretically could reduce the airwaves available for white spaces. While the nation waits for white spaces, which first became available as a result of the digital TV transition that occurred in 2009, the stated use for those airwaves have changed.

Instead of being a utopian vision of mobile broadband, which Google (s goog) and others portrayed it as back in 2008, it has morphed more into a utilitarian way to provide broadband to rural areas at a lower cost than laying fiber. So goodbye to white spaces as the future home for an economical Internet of things and hello to it as a WISP of sorts for rural America. In the UK it’s still discussed as potential backhaul, but perhaps that vision will also change.

Disclosure: Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.