Carlson and Neul recently launched a system for providing wireless broadband to rural areas, called RuralConnect. RuralConnect uses TV whitespace, that is, it takes advantage of bands in the TV spectrum that are not used in particular locations. The advantage of the UHF spectrum is that signals can travel long distances and easily penetrate walls and other obstacles, making it perfect for wireless internet service providers.
The key to the whole concept is that bands in the TV spectrum are now available for unlicensed use. In the US, this provision was in the Payroll Tax Bill which was passed in February, and here in the UK, telecoms regulator Ofcom decided to make TV whitespace unlicensed last autumn. Ofcom said at the time that there was 150MHz of (free) spectrum available in the UK TV bands – compare this to the typically 30MHz used for (paid-for) 3G services, and you’ll understand why there’s such a fuss about it. 200MHz is said to be available in the US.
Making this valuable spectrum license-free, despite opposition on both sides of the pond who point out that auctioning TV whitespace could raise valuable cash for either country’s economy, will be a great driving force behind innovation in the electronics industry. Licensing the spectrum limits its use to whatever the license-holder wants to do with it. If an operator held the license, it may decide that providing wireless internet to rural communities is not cost-effective, and those communities would have to live without it. With the license-free model, start-ups like Neul can innovate to develop systems which do find value in specific cases such as rural broadband.
Other potential use cases for white space include machine-to-machine (M2M) networks, a sector which is expected to reach critical mass by the end of the decade. This sector certainly holds value for suppliers of radios which will be used in their billions by everything from lorries to vending machines. It’s not difficult to see how this will create opportunities for innovation; white space, since it is free of charge to use, removes one of the key barriers to use of M2M. Where this leaves operators, who currently get revenues from every piece of M2M data sent by 3G, I don’t know.
We have already seen Neul innovate in developing cognitive radio techniques to deal with the strict requirements for interference in TV white space. They are the first, but they won’t be the last. Neul’s partner Carlson is developing omnidirectional sectoral antennas specifically for broadband over TV white space, and Cambridge Consultants has already trialled its InCognito cognitive radio platform. These have all focused on rural broadband and M2M, but since unlicensed white space can be shared by everyone, further innovations may be in completely different applications that the industry hasn’t thought of yet.