IT Giants make a big bet on white space broadband, regulators take a look


In April, CivSource reported on two projects, one in California and one in Cape Town, South Africa involving white space broadband. White space broadband is the use of left over digital spectrum made up of vacant TV channels, or white spaces. Historically, this spectrum has gone unused, however, with advances in technology white space may be a new answer for hard to reach populations.

Both projects are powered by technology from Carlson Wireless, a wireless technology provider that uses RF technology to deliver full voice and data connections, no matter how rugged the terrain. For rural populations, and some urban populations it can be difficult to get fiber to the home. However, given the long range transmission power of television signals, populations with issues like mountainous terrain or decayed fiber may now be able to rely on white space broadband access.

“The thing that’s new here is the ability to use television channels that are vacant. TV companies had a lock on this but now people are moving toward two way data, and we have been able to show that we can support two way data transfer without interrupting broadcast,” explains Jim Carlson, President and CEO of Carlson Wireless, in an interview with CivSource.

So far, the use of white space broadband is still very new, but these projects have big backers. Google and Microsoft are placing big bets on white space broadband as a means of increasing access and are working with Carlson to use their technology on the projects. At the end of last week, in Africa, tech and telecom companies came together to show the results of the Cape Town project to local regulators.

In all the Cape Town project has six partners – Google, Carlson Wireless, ESN, CSIR Meraka, WAPA, and TENET, working with ten schools in Cape Town. Hosted by Google, The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), AFRINIC, Internet Society Senegal (ISOC), Microsoft and Senegal’s Ministry of Telecoms and Digital Economy, held a forum on supporting the wider use of TV white space (TVWS) broadband. “The event was to show local regulators what we can do with this technology, so we can start to make this type of spectrum use more readily available,” Carlson says. These technologies lay contingent upon the shared, unlicensed (but not unregulated) use of White Spaces spectrum.

For the most part, the project has been lead and funded by the private sector companies in the partnership, with a regulatory allowance granted by regulators. South Africa first took an interest in the technology after a brief demonstration event put on by the private sector partners in 2011. The country has a goal of universal broadband deployment by 2020 but much of the infrastructure needs work. Microsoft is also working on a deployment in Kenya. The California project is going similarly, with the FCC granting a special temporary authority (STA) to Carlson and to deploy the technology. The FCC has also announced initiatives to increase broadband access across the US on roughly the same time frame if not sooner, but getting incumbent providers to jump on board has had limited success.

As more countries complete, commence, or plan to switch from analog to digital broadcasting—part of the international digital television transition—White Spaces are becoming increasingly available. However, there is a danger that incumbent license holders will be motivated to lock down the newly available spectrum with traditional private-property style licenses: destroying the competitive, and consumer-driven nature of TVWS. With this in mind, the Forum hopes to establish regulations that support a more balanced approach—before this progress-thwarting practice engulfs TVWS technology.

As we have already seen in the US with municipal broadband networks and bills designed to block them, the danger of something like this happening is real. Right now, these projects are using Google’s spectrum database to determine white space availability. Google has already shown in the US and abroad that it intends to support the development of other broadband networks where it can, and this project furthers those initiatives. Carlson’s RuralConnect Broadband Solution, enabled by the Neul Horizon software, provides the communications backbone for the trial; outputting broadband Internet while interacting with the Google database to ensure proper channel assignment.

TV White Spaces’ lower frequencies can travel longer distances, making the technology well suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure. It is also used for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.

“In urban areas wired services may be more economical but it depends,” Carlson says. “If the infrastructure is degraded, as is the case in Cape Town, you can’t upgrade for data services. You have to do wireless then, and television spectrum isn’t being used.”

In the US, Carlson’s RuralConnect TVWS Broadband Radio has been implemented and tested under a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) experimental license and the company is working with the regulator on policy around TVWS.

“The business case for us was that, we have already worked on rural broadband access and have been able to show to wireless internet service providers that they can have a arsenal of tools to get service out to subscribers. This is another tool. Our first run of product was in April, we will do another one for June and another in August. We are growing the trials of this technology exponentially, and we hope to keep highlighting use cases,” he notes.

The company is also talking with big telcos about TVWS and wifi hotspots. “Pretty much everyone knows they want these technologies. A few years ago, the big carriers wrote off wifi hotspots, but now they are looking into them to offload data from cell networks. Wifi hotspots are carrying half the data load, and that is only expected to grow given current demand. Especially where putting up towers may not be possible. Some are more out in front with these technologies than others. We can provide the mechanisms to backhaul wifi hotspots, pretty economically.”

Wifi and TVWS have the potential to overcome a number of challenges surrounding broadband access. Both technologies are economical for providers and users, and can bring disparate populations online. According to Carlson, TVWS may also serve as a backstop for rural populations on satellite networks that are already becoming overcrowded.

“One of the constraints of satellite services is that bandwidth is constrained by the repeater in the sky which can only serve a certain number of people. Eventually that will get congested. Really they’re going to go after people are too far from any terrestrial connection at all, while people who are closer to a TV connection could use TVWS.”

On the surface, TVWS looks like a big win for citizens and economic development. However, the risks are clear, many regulatory authorities also view spectrum allocations as a way of collecting revenue. In the US, the private sector playbook to halt deployment may already exist. We will be following how these projects continue, stay tuned.

Image Credit: Tony Young (Flickr)