FCC Vote on White Space Nears

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On Sept. 23, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is thought likely to vote on whether to allow white space transmissions.

White space is the spectrum left over from the move of broadcasters from analog to digital. The spectrum has a number of advantages, according to Digital Trends. It is unlicensed and therefore free. It is spectrum that permeates structures easily, which is a big deal as frequencies rise. The signals are robust, topping out at a hefty 15 to 20 megabits per second (Mbps) and have a long range.

Even if the FCC approves white space, it will be quite some time before the spectrum-which some refer to as "Wi-Fi on steroids" - shows up in products. For one thing, a generation of equipment must be developed. This may be tricker than other technology development cycles, since special steps must be taken to avoid interference. This was a big issue during the regulatory process.

Late last year, I spoke with Rick Rotondo, the CMO and co-founder of Spectrum Bridge, a wireless mobility company that started a white space network in the Blue Ridge Mountain terrain of Claudville, Va., which Rotondo spoke about during our interview, and elsewhere. Today, Spectrum Bridge said that it had launched a white space trial for health care in Logan, Ohio. The trial is being run in association with Google and Hocking Valley Community Hospital.


Since the available spectrum isn't the same everywhere, there is a feedback loop to a master database, Rotondo said. This suggests a research-and-deployment path that will be a bit tricky. Rotondo said that Dell, Motorola, HP, Philips, Microsoft and others are likely vendors.

Assuming the FCC seals the deal, Rotondo was more or less accurate on the first part of the timeline:

The industry is waiting for the FCC to finalize their rules, which will be some time in mid-2010. I would guess you will start seeing early stuff anywhere from six to eight months and more mass market stuff 12 to 18 months after the finalization of the rules. It's like anything else, [some companies] come out early because they are thinking about this and are ready to go. You might see those first products for business and commercial applications because they will be more expensive. You may see the consumer gear within a year.

It will be interesting to see whetherf white space becomes a fundamental transmission platform or stays on the periphery. If, indeed, the FCC approves white space next week, the reaction of the big players-those mentioned by Rotondo and others-will be telling. Some of the early signs are good. There is Google's involvement in the Oho project and, according to the InformationWeek story, other moves from the search giant and from Microsoft:

Microsoft, an ardent supporter of white spaces, has been testing a white spaces network at its corporate headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Google has been another supporter of white spaces. A trial white spaces network in Wilmington, N.C., has also been trialing the network for several months.

The approval of white space could be a milestone or an event that doesn't change the bandwidth picture significantly and quickly fades into obscurity. The six months after approval should provide a good idea of how the story will play out.