XO Communications' Blog

White Spaces in the Right Places? The Potential Impact of White Space on the Future of Communications

[ 1 ] May 22, 2012 | By

White spaces. Sounds like the name of a reality real estate show or a band.  For such a plain sounding term, though, they just might have a profound impact on our communications future. And not just here in the U.S. but across the globe.

Just what are these white spaces?  Well, they have been with us for a long time but until recent years have not really been known to many outside of the broadcast industry and the FCC.  Another name for them, less used but more descriptive, is Television White spaces (TVWS).  Quite simply, white spaces are slices of the radio spectrum that were traditionally reserved by the FCC, and thus unused, to keep separation between over the air television channels in order to prevent interference. The transition from analog to digital TV has created more of this white space.

Ways in which white spaces can impact our lives include extending the reach and penetration of wireless broadband data to include rural communities, to tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in economic impact, and to the rise of smart cities.  Might I be getting a little carried away? If I was writing this a even just a year ago you might say yes, but now, I don’t believe so.

Lightening Speed and Big Reach

Why the interest in these white spaces?  At the most basic level, the interest can be attributed to our insatiable appetite for ubiquitous, broadband wireless data access at ever increasing speeds. Personally, I blame Apple. Just kidding, sort of. But why the interest when our country already has fairly good 3G wireless coverage, ever expanding 4G coverage, and technologies such as WIFI and WIMAX? Well, the characteristics that TVWS frequencies share with that of a TV broadcast, such as the ability to cover broad areas and penetrate buildings and other objects also make them good for sending and receiving broadband data. Their low frequency means they have good reach without the need for as much infrastructure (cost) as the 3G and 4G wireless technologies.  Perhaps their biggest advantage may be in extending broadband data reach to the more rural communities that the big wireless providers understandably do not have the incentive to build into and serve.

As of this writing it has been almost three years since the completed conversion from analog to digital broadcast TV.  As one might imagine, since the moment the idea was born of repurposing these airwaves there has been quite a battle raging behind the scenes.  This battle was fought by a number of entities for multiple reasons, some more valid than others, and of course most of them self-serving.  The large, influential consumer wireless providers who have over the years paid a king’s ransom at spectrum auctions fought long and hard for an FCC ruling that this spectrum would also go to auction.  One might speculate that their motivation had to do with their desire to also outbid all others for this spectrum and effectively keep out competition.  In fairness to them, however, as demand for wireless broadband data seems to follow a path similar to that of Moore’s Law they could certainly at some point make use of the additional spectrum.

Open and Unlicensed Airwaves Could Spur Innovation

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has had concerns that allowing new entities to use the TVWS spectrum for broadband data transmission could or would cause interference with the DTV signals, while others fretted about interference with some older unlicensed devices operating in that same spectrum.  A great deal of testing was done by the FCC and other interested parties to ensure that new White Space Devices (WSDs) could operate in this spectrum without interfering with TV broadcasts or other devices.  Testing was successful, though a requirement was established that WSDs must communicate with a central database to make their presence known and query what other devices might already be operating in that area’s white space and on what channel so that it can select a different one and not interfere with what may already be operating there.  In the end, the FCC did the right thing and ruled that these airwaves would not be auctioned and they would remain open and unlicensed for anyone’s use that complies with these requirements.  This not only makes more spectrum available overall for use but stands to spur innovation as it opens up this spectrum to multiple new players.

So back to the potential these white spaces hold for how we communicate in the future.  This TVWS spectrum will support both fixed and mobile wireless broadband at high speeds, has great range and great penetration.  These networks have proven to be cost effective and affordable to build.

Where are we now?  Well, in addition to a number of successful trial network deployments there are now actual networks up and running in Wilmington, NC and Cambridge, UK.  Singapore, South Africa and Germany are close.  Many more are underway and on the drawing boards.  Costs to consumers are looking to be in the range of current DSL offerings.

Increase in Broadband Could Mean Increase in GDP

And what does the future hold for the impact of TVWS?  The further penetration of broadband coverage is significant.  Many studies have been done on the impact of broadband penetration on GDP and the estimates tend to run anywhere from a 1% to 2.5% increase in GDP for every 10% increase in broadband penetration. That of course has a positive effect on the unemployment rate as well.  As these networks get deployed and mature, devices become smart enough to hand off connections between services, another application can be offloading mobile broadband traffic from the current 3G and 4G services that are buckling under the weight of an ever growing population of iPads and other tablets.  TVWS is complimentary to and can extend WIFI reach.  Perhaps the coolest impact TVWS may have will be an acceleration of the concept known as “The Internet of Things”, which refers to a time where most devices that are part of our daily lives communicate with us and each other – cars talk to roads, electrical devices communicate to each other and the power grid to conserve energy, city trash cans alert the city maintenance crew when they need to be emptied, etc.

These networks should begin to really proliferate in 2013.  It will be interesting to look back in just a few years to see how this plays out.  I do believe we will see that they have indeed had a very significant impact.  Of course most may still not have heard the term white spaces, as surely by then someone will have come up with a cooler term.


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Tags: White Spaces

Category : Industry Trends

About Mike McConnell: I'm a Senior Sales Engineer for XO Communications. I hold BS degrees in both Management/Accounting and Information Systems and completed a Masters in Telecommunications Management. Current certifications held include CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP, with CCDP up next. I began my career in telecommunication in the year of divestiture - 1984, and I've seen a lot change in my twenty five years in the industry. In my spare time I play and coach soccer, and I'm a big sports fan in general. I've been to a couple of Final Four Championships, a Super Bowl, and occasionally operate a scoreboard for the NBA's Denver Nuggets' home games. View author profile.

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  1. “Ways in which white spaces can impact our lives include extending the reach and penetration of wireless broadband data to include rural communities, to tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in economic impact, and to the rise of smart cities.”

    It’s true, we are just beginning to realize the potential of this breakthrough wireless technology. It’s great to read this article about the superior range and penetration of TVWS signal and what it will mean to our future.

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