Will We Soon Have Gigantic Wireless Hotspots?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is poised to take action on “white spaces” — the wireless frequencies between those used by digital television broadcasters — through the implementation of a database designed to prevent interference between wireless device use of white spaces and digital television broadcasts. This could remove the final hurdle for use of white spaces, says the Wall Street Journal, enabling wireless hotspots with far greater range and coverage than today’s Wi-Fi networks. Proponents of such unlicensed wireless availability include computer and tech companies like Google (s goog), Microsoft (s msft), Dell (s dell) and HP (s hpq), while the broadcast industry is still concerned about potential interference that white space devices could bring to digital programming.

Part of the FCC’s agreement to allow for white spaces initially included the formation of a central geo-location database of licensed spectrum use by broadcasters around the country. Such a database would help mitigate potential interference between unlicensed spectrum use and licensed broadcasts. Essentially, it would ensure that white space network access on a smartphone, for example, would have zero impact on any digital television broadcasts nearby. Although far more television content is provided by wired methods — think cable and fiber — over-the-air digital television is still watched by many, so the FCC can’t allow for potential interference issues. Other details have to be addressed as well: The level of transmission power, for example, may require FCC guidelines, else devices become confused by a wireless shouting match.

The white space situation arose a few years ago as part of the transition to digital television in the U.S.; certain frequencies were freed up for non-television use. Indeed, the 700 MHz spectrum auction netted nearly $20 billion as Verizon (s vz), AT&T (s t) and others took advantage of the freed-up wireless resource. However, not all the spectrum is in use, which means there’s opportunity. Spectrum Bridge (see disclosure below) is one of those seeking to offer unlicensed wireless access with the unused channels and has successfully trialed the use of a white space network in a rural area of Virginia: a typical place where a cellular 3G signal may not be available. The white space spectrum in this case covers the final few miles from wired backhaul, enabling residents to wirelessly connect to the web over a range wider than that of Wi-Fi. The unlicensed nature means consumers have the freedom to set up their own networks, just as they do today with Wi-Fi.

If the FCC does remove the final roadblocks for white space network use as expected, an entirely new industry could rise, similar to that of the Wi-Fi market over the past dozen or so years. New and updated baseband chips to support such frequencies will be needed for smartphones and notebooks. Municipal wireless projects could see new life because the greater range of white space spectrum could reduce implementation costs of city-wide hotspots. Web-connected devices like e-book readers, media players, smart meters and even vehicles might rely less on 3G or 4G networks for connectivity due to free or lower-cost white space network access. The future isn’t written yet, but white spaces could reduce the hunting and seeking of that short-range hotspot.

(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.)

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