How the FCC's White Space Ruling Could Affect Everything About Networking

Feature Story

How the FCC's White Space Ruling Could Affect Everything About Networking

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines  |  March 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

You’ve probably heard about how the FCC (News - Alert) has moved to advance wireless by freeing up unused spectrum in the broadcast TV band. What you may not be aware of, however, is just how wide-ranging this white space effort is and what it could portend not just for wireless Internet service providers, but for virtually every organization that has a campus network, every consumer electronics and network infrastructure outfit, and every wireless and wireline service provider.

The FCC’s white space move represents the largest single expansion of spectrum since the changes to Part 15, which expanded the use of 2.4gHz unlicensed spectrum and led to the popularization of Wi-Fi.

But it’s much bigger than that.

Billions of consumer electronics devices now occupy the 83.5mHz of spectrum in the 2.4gHz space. That’s the entire wireless ecosystem, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and just about anything else you can think of. The white space, meanwhile, represents 276mHz of spectrum – almost three times the spectrum available in the 2.4gHz band, notes Jesse Caulfield, president of Key Bridge Global LLC, and this is the largest block of spectrum available for unlicensed use under 1gHz, so it’s infinitely more usable than the 2.4gHz bands.

“Now you’ll be able to get broadband wherever you can get FM radio,” says Caulfield.

Richard Shockey, who runs Shockey Consulting and is chairman of The SIP Forum, adds that white space spectrum has awesome promulgation characteristics, including the ability to penetrate walls for better coverage.

“This is as good as it gets really,” says Shockey.

“This very much reminds me of VoIP 12 years ago, because of its potential implications,” he continues. “No one took voice over IP very seriously 12 years ago, and look at where it is now.”

White space spectrum, which is found between 50mHz and 698mHz, should go a long way toward helping expand broadband to all Americans, which President Obama and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski have indicated is a key goal of the federal government. Indeed, it will be impossible to justify fiber optic broadband all homes, and copper is in limited supply and has limited reach. Using wireless technology can help rural service providers bring broadband to subscribers that might not otherwise be reachable.

However, the applications for white space spectrum go far beyond just rural broadband builds. This repurposed spectrum also can be used to build corporate networks (Shockey says that Microsoft (News - Alert) has already used white space spectrum to build a pilot network at its headquarters campus in Redmond, Wash.); to help deliver in-home applications including smart grid; and by wireless and wireline service providers that want to create new or fill in existing broadband networks.

Caulfield adds that because the white space spectrum is supremely usable it also brings down the cost of some existing applications. He notes that FiberTower (News - Alert) and Sprint have been among the biggest proponents of using this spectrum for things such as wireless backhaul. Caulfield says that while a microwave solution for mobile backhaul would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, a similarly sized solution would be just hundreds of dollars with this spectrum.

Given the wide range of devices, networks and applications for which white space spectrum could be leveraged, this effort is likely to represent billions of dollars in new revenues for the communications industry, Shockey opines.

But the implications related to the government’s white space actions are bigger still.

Also key to this discussion about white space and, potentially, all wireless spectrum, is a database. As part of the white space effort, the FCC mandated the creation of a database that wireless devices and networks can query to access, and prevent interference with, radios operating at these frequencies.

“The white space database gives you a channel list, and it gives you rights to transmit,” says Caulfield.

The database is supposed to launch commercially this year. But there are still many unanswered questions about this database, like what technologies it will employ, how it will be queried, how it will be financially supported, and who will manage it.

However, the FCC has conditionally approved nine database applicants. That includes Comsearch, Frequency Finder, Google, KB Enterprises and LS Telcom, Key Bridge Global, Neustar, Spectrum (News - Alert) Bridge, Telcordia and WSdb. All of the above companies submitted proposals in response to an FCC order seeking interest around this.

These companies will have a chance to supplement and respond to concerns about their database proposals on Feb. 28. (These companies submitted their proposals back in January of 2010, but the FCC didn’t release rules around the database until September. So Feb. 28 is the date by which the nine companies can alter their proposals to align with the rules or, if they want, withdraw from the process altogether.) The FCC has scheduled a March 10 workshop to address administrator operation, consistency and compliance and to schedule public trials for the database. And April 24 has been defined as the earliest possible date for commercial availability of the database, which is required for entities to make use of the white space for new wireless applications.

“I think that this database idea is the coolest thing since sliced bread,” says Barlow Keener, attorney of Keener Law Group, who moderated a SuperWiFi Summit panel (in which all the sources in this story participated) at ITEXPO East last month in Miami.

The database will enable anyone with any device to see all the radios on the network, he says.

While it’s unlikely that the average consumer will actively be looking at such information, Shockey explains that what the database will enable is for multi-mode wireless devices and network elements to review and select appropriate radios and frequencies for connectivity.

Indeed, Caulfield says that the rules anticipate two classes of unlicensed white space devices, ones that can create a network and ones that can consume the network. He adds that the database is really more about infrastructure for creating a network, not necessarily for its consumption.

Caulfield also notes that network devices (like access points and other enterprise wireless fixed infrastructure) that can leverage white space and the new database are expected to come on the market starting in the third quarter. Consumer devices that can work with all this should arrive starting at the end of next year, he says.

Peter Stanforth, CTO of Spectrum Bridge, says that one model could be to subsidize the database by tacking on a small fee to all devices that will be registered to it. If database operators can deliver value-added services around the database, he adds, the database could be delivered even more affordably.

Here, Stanforth gets to a key point. The white space database is widely expected to evolve into something greater than a white space interference avoidance mechanism. The thought is that, over time, this database will come to house information not just on radios operating in the white space frequency, but on all radios used for wireless communications.

The database could also eventually enable value-added services and capabilities.

One source told me that could allow for a service provider to offer a subscriber the ability to press a turbo button on his or her smartphone to get a faster connection, for example. However, Caulfield says that wouldn’t be possible. What the database will do, however, is establish a spectrum coordinator that could take steps to avoid spectrum saturation in certain areas, he says. That means there could be more control of connectivity in a building or a park, or for certain events, like at the unveiling of a new Apple product by Steve Jobs (News - Alert), he explains.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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