White Space stands to transform the way we purchase and use wireless internet. It isn't yet widely adopted, but this unlicensed, free form of broadband is gaining traction. Here are 10 things you should know to get up to speed on this disruptive technology.
1. The definition of White Space
White Space refers to the unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum. Television networks leave gaps between channels for buffering purposes, and this space in the wireless spectrum is similar to what is used for 4G and so it can be used to deliver widespread broadband internet.
Typical home Wi-Fi can travel through two walls. White Space broadband can travel up to 10 kilometers, through vegetation, buildings, and other obstacles. Tablets, phones, and computers can all access this wireless internet using White Space through fixed or portable power stations. The actual amounts of spectrum vary by region, but White Space spectrum ranges from 470 MHz to 790 Mhz.
So does your laptop have the hardware to connect straight to the broadband spectrum? Not yet, according to Alan Stillwell, incentive auctions advisor for the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET).
"If you want to use TVWS (TV White Space) with your existing laptop, you would need a separate device," Stillwell said. "The TVWS devices in use right not do not serve computers (towers, laptops or tablets) directly. They provide a link to a receiver that is connected to a regular WiFi hub."
2. White Space has been tested in many areasOne of the largest white space technology trials occurred in Cambridge in 2011 when Microsoft, the BBC, BT, and Nokia launched a consortium to support the project. Then, at the end of last year, Ofcom, the regulator of UK communications industries, announced a six month trial with 20 private and public sector organizations, making it Europe's first major pilot of the technology. There have been other successful tests in Canada and Africa in recent years, as well.
In 2011, Wilmington, North Carolina implemented White Space technology to connect the city's infrastructure, allowing public officials to remotely turn lights on and off in parks, provide public wireless broadband to certain areas of the city, and monitor water levels. At West Virginia University, White Space technology is used to power a "super Wi-Fi network". It started in 2013 with wireless internet on the campus public transit platform, which transports about 15,000 students a day. WVU is the first campus to utilize White Space broadband internet.
3. The FCC is encouraging White Space technology in the U.S.
The FCC Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) has approved four TVWS (TV White Space) databases and seven models of devices to power them. Portable devices are not yet available, but these fixed devices offer internet services in rural areas for businesses, residences, and institutions, according to Stillwell.
"The Gigabit Libraries program is using TVWS devices to deliver Internet service to local libraries and a number of operators in rural areas are using these devices to provide service to homes and businesses in rural areas," he said. "We expect the number of devices and their uses to grow as time goes on." Currently, there are thousands of fixed devices already deployed in the U.S., he added.
4. White Space potential in developing countries
Google and Microsoft are already chasing the emerging White Space market in Africa, where only 16 percent of the population is online. Because the waves can travel up to 10 kilometers in radius, it is great for remote, off-the-grid villages.
Google and Microsoft have also invested in White Space technology in developing countries. Google recently launched a program in 10 schools in Cape Town, South Africa. Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative is focusing on White Space technology throughout the continent, hoping to bring millions of people online, and has projects in place in Tanzania and South Africa.
5. How to power White Space stations
Rural areas, both in the U.S. and abroad, are often inhibited from wireless access because they are inaccessible and off the local power grid. Cell towers are difficult to install and can't connect, either. Fortunately, White Space power stations can be charged with solar panels, and the excess electricity generated can also power other institutions in the area such as schools.
"That adds another dimension because in African countries for example, it's hard to find electricity, so now you can use solar power to keep it running," Mody said.
6. Potential in rural areas
Rural areas, where people have not received very good broadband services in the past and present, are the perfect places to start using White Space technology, said Dr. Apurva N. Mody, chairman of the WhiteSpace Alliance, an organization that studies and promotes the deployment of White Space for broadband internet.
"One of the biggest problem in rural areas is to meet the device points, the houses are separated by longer distances and it's very difficult for cable and fiber optics to meet this," he added. "The traditional structures can only go five kilometers or so."
With a cell tower or other device, the White Space technology can travel 10 kilometers and service many more customers at one time. The FCC does not have data on every individual location of devices since the use is on an unlicensed basis, but two manufacturers—Carlson Wireless and Adaptrum, Inc—are investing in White Space in rural areas.
7. There is a big future for White Space technology
Spectrum Bridge, a telecommunication software company, was one of the first databases certified by the FCC. The company has worked with Dell, Google, and Microsoft to deploy experimental broadband networks. Spectrum Bridge has several tools on their website to show where and how much White Space is available in the U.S, including Show My White Space.
"Unlicensed spectrum provides opportunities for free wireless local distribution of internet service." Stillwell said. "The demand for unlicensed spectrum using Wi-Fi technologies at 2.4 GHz and 5 Ghz has been growing at very high rates and that growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future."
8. Companies are investing in white spaceLast June, the FCC certified Google to operate the national database, deciding which parts of White Space spectrum can be used for wireless connections. The software uses an application programming interface (API) that allows devices to find details about configuration without humans. The API is free to individuals and Google offers a commercial license for businesses.
Microsoft has implemented White Space projects throughout Asia, including a recent deployment in Singapore through partnerships with Singapore government research agencies and a UK wireless service provider in areas where vegetation makes wireless access difficult. In conjunction with its projects in Europe, Microsoft is also creating a database for White Space in the U.S., much like Google's.
9. Incentive auctions will change everything
The FCC introduced incentive auctions in the 2010 National Broadband Plan. The auctions are a voluntary, market-based way that encourages licensees to relinquish spectrum rights in exchange for a share of proceeds from the auction of new licenses. Congress authorized these auctions in 2012. Once the incentive auctions are are implemented, Stillwell said, and the amount of spectrum in each local area is more clear, a roll-out service will progress more rapidly. Incentive auctions will be the biggest issue in the U.S. soon enough, since there are already deployed wireless services and no one is focused yet on the extra space that is available.
10. Cable companies will want to purchase White Space
Internet service providers were ranked the lowest customer service satisfaction of any industry in America, according to American Customer Satisfaction Index's most recent survey. The two largest providers, Comcast and Time Warner, were ranked the lowest out of all internet service providers.
However, incentive auctions could potentially allow private companies like Comcast and Time Warner to purchase unlicensed broadband spectrum and use it for themselves. If the FCC allows cable companies or other internet providers to buy sections of the spectrum, the amount of free, unlicensed Wi-Fi space will drastically reduce in size. So far, the FCC has allowed very few internet service providers to license the White Space spectrum. Hopefully, they will continue to be cautious about who they allow to purchase the spectrum so that it can be a disruptive force in connecting more people to the internet.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.