Google and Microsoft: Delivering Global Unlicensed Super Wi-Fi

Wireless Wonk

Google and Microsoft: Delivering Global Unlicensed Super Wi-Fi

By Barlow Keener, Attorney  |  December 26, 2013

Google and Microsoft (News - Alert) are priming the pump for using super Wi-Fi to deliver wireless broadband outside U.S., the birthplace white spaces. Africa is the key focus. Even Facebook (News - Alert) through is talking about creative ways to deliver Internet to the unconnected in Africa. 

It all started in the U.S. with the TV White Spaces FCC (News - Alert) 2010 order approving the unlicensed use of UHF and VHF TV channels. The channels were vacated after the Digital TV reshuffling in 2009.  Because certain TV channels were occupied in some geographies but not in other geographies, the FCC created a novel method of preventing interference by requiring new white spaces unlicensed point to point and point to multipoint radios to connect to the Internet and contact every 24 hours an approved database provider.  The database checks the geo-location of the radio and compares the location with the transmissions contours of nearby operating TV stations. If the radio is located within the TV contours, the database uses an on/off policy to turn off the white spaces radio automatically forcing it to either change channels or stop operating.   

Africa has been bullish on white spaces. Only 15 percent of African homes are Internet connected. A University of Malawi physics professor, Chomora Mikeka, has organized a white spaces trial with the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority to serve the rural town of Zomba. The trial uses Carlson Wireless (News - Alert) radios. The Malawi team works with the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.    

Microsoft is conducting trials using solar power in Nanyuki and Kalema, Kenya, and working with the regulator, Ministry of Information and Communications, and Indigo Telecom. 

In South Africa, TENET (the Tertiary Education and Research Network), under the leadership of Arno Hart, conducted a trial funded by Google using Carlson Wireless radios. The vision is to use white spaces radios to deliver Wi-Fi hotspots to populated areas without Internet located in large (million+) urban cities. White spaces would provide the backhaul through foliage and buildings to radios that use a Wi-Fi card to then deliver Wi-Fi to the local residents free of charge. South Africa regulators creatively used the TV guard band channels, those channels next to TV station-assigned channels, for white spaces unlicensed transmissions. The trials showed that there was no inference with the TV station transmission or reception. Use of the guard band channels is prohibited in the U.S.  

The FCC is the only regulatory body to have passed final white spaces regulations.   Ofcom is scheduled to deliver its final order in the fall of 2014.  Canada is expected to complete its regulation in the winter of 2014. While Canada and Singapore are basically following the U.S. FCC model, Ofcom did not fall in line. Ofcom’s database method breaks down the geography in the database by geo-pixels of 100 x 100 meters square – or very small geographic areas. If the radio is transmitting in a particular pixel geography, the database instructs the radio not always to turn off but to lower or raise its power to a predetermined maximum level.  The Ofcom database also calculates power levels based on known clutter in the pixel area like buildings or trees.

A regulatory pothole looming for white spaces’ international regulation, and innovative growth, is the U.S. FCC TV Incentive Auction. The TV Incentive Auction is likely to result in a nationwide swath spectrum dedicated for unlicensed use granting more white spaces in urban areas like Washington, D.C., than exists today. However, the uncertainty factor of not having a final incentive auction rulemaking is holding back other countries from completing their white spaces regulation. 

The mobile industry is pushing for a single, large harmonized 700mHz band of spectrum that will be the same in all countries. The FCC’s Incentive Auction model selling of TV spectrum will be used globally as a model regulatory scheme. Speculation about what may happen to the TV spectrum is holding up regulators from entering into final white spaces orders authorizing commercial use of the same TV spectrum for white spaces. 

Technology could outpace regulation creating the equivalent of spectrum gridlock where the roads are not yet completed but millions of automobiles (or unlicensed white spaces radios) start filling the roads as they did in the 1920s and 1930s when there were no highways completed. Like the automobile revolution, regulators should not impede the free market, and the buying public, from using unlicensed TV white spaces devices to deliver the Internet. 

Barlow Keener (News - Alert) is the principal with Keener Law Group ( out of Boston.

Edited by Ryan Sartor