UK prepares for white space broadband rollout in 2014

The UK is about to get a serious pilot of white space radio. Yes, there’s already been an industry-led pilot in Cambridge, but that was really about the technology itself – the pilot coming up this autumn is being led by the telecoms regulator Ofcom, and the idea here is to test out the processes around using white spaces across the country.

In other words, the UK is now gearing up for a proper rollout next year (if everything goes well in the trial), with potential uses including rural broadband and the internet of things. Here’s what Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said in a statement on Friday:

“Ofcom is preparing for a future where consumers’ demand for data services will experience huge growth. This will be fuelled by smartphones, tablets and other new wireless applications.

“White space technology is one creative way that this demand can be met. We are aiming to facilitate this important innovation by working closely with industry.”

The term “white spaces” refers to the gaps between heavily-used radio frequency bands. These are buffer zones that were deliberately left empty in order to stop the services using these various bands – generally TV broadcast services — from interfering with one another.

However, a few years ago people started playing around with the idea of using white spaces for digital communications. They tend to be low-frequency, which makes them ideal for sending data over long distances, and their exploitation now seems quite viable, depending on which bands are already in use in a particular geographical area.

This is why databases of frequencies and coverage are absolutely crucial to white space usage – unlike with Wi-Fi, which can be used anywhere without a license, Ofcom wants to make sure that devices using white space frequencies only do so when they can avoid interfering with surrounding bands. The devices, which will generally use cognitive radio technology in order to hop between frequencies as needed, will therefore need to get clearance from an Ofcom-approved database before they can start transmitting.

Those of you who have been following white space technology will know that Google is compiling its own database of frequency usage, and this is the sort of database that Ofcom might theoretically approve for official use in the UK.

Google’s(s goog) database is currently being tested in the U.S. by the FCC, the American counterpart to Ofcom, and is also being deployed in a white space trial in Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, Microsoft(s msft) has already conducted tests in the UK (the Cambridge pilot) and Singapore, and is now active in Kenya. Other, similar initiatives are underway in Finland, Ireland and France.