Lots at Stake in Battle over White Space


An important decision about what to do with spectrum made available by the switch in February of television broadcasting from analog to digital is entering an important phase.


The fate of this spectrum, dubbed "white space," will be determined by the FCC. A milestone in the process is slated for next month when the FCC releases results of testing of smart radios, which are used to determine whether a specific piece of spectrum already is occupied. The biggest technical objection held by at least one group of detractors -- makers and users of wireless mics -- is that use of the spectrum for broadband can interfere with their signals.


All decisions on spectrum allocations are political and technical. The Wall Street Journal provides a good deal of color on both the testing of the smart radios and the positioning of the players. While some commentators say that Google, Microsoft and others want to use the spectrum for backhauling signals from users toward the middle of the network, others are positioning white space as a vehicle for inexpensive wireless broadband. Whether the two proposed uses are synonymous, partially overlap or are completely independent remains to be seen.


The most extensive testing occurred during an August 9 preseason Washington Redskins football game at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. The tests of equipment from Philips Electronics North America Corp and the Institute for Infocomm Research took place at four locations before and during the game. The details are related in this interesting piece written by an FCC employee. There were strong voices saying both that the equipment performed well and that it failed.


Om Malik has a good overview of the current status. He points out that Google's advocacy of the free spectrum is somewhat ironic since the company generates so much revenue. He gives the company credit for acknowledging on its newly minted white space site, Free the Airwaves, that there is a business angle in its argument for freeing up the spectrum. Malik's post implies that details still are sketchy and notes that there are significant players opposed to the idea.


A lot of spectrum is being auctioned these days. But the bottom line is that free spectrum remains an extremely valuable commodity. Whether smart radios can be made to work is important. The bigger question, however, is whether rules will be put in place guaranteeing that the spectrum truly will be used to provide low-cost broadband access.