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October 04, 2010

Go White Space, Young Person, Go White Space

"Go white space," is the advice Horace Greeley would give if he were alive today. This supersedes previous advice given to Dustin Hoffmann to go into plastics just before his first romantic encounter with Mrs. Robinson as well as Greeley's earlier advice to go west. Use of the "TV white space" will be the new wild west in many ways; there should be a gold rush of innovation.

"White space" is radio spectrum that used to be reserved for TV use. Some has been freed up by over-the-air TV shifting to digital broadcasting which needs less spectrum; some – particularly in rural areas – never was used for TV and now pretty clearly won't be. In a decision two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made it practical for this valuable idle resource to be used WITHOUT OWNERS OF TRANSMITTERS BEING LICENSED. This is a big deal. It will lead to enormous innovation; it gives American companies a valuable sandbox to innovate in; and it will also result in much better use of the available radio frequencies.

Radio spectrum is considered a public resource and "belongs" to the federal government which usually auctions off what it doesn't need for its own purposes. These auctions have brought considerable revenue into the treasury. Nevertheless, two years ago the FCC first made the gutsy decision to leave this newly available, highly desirable spectrum for unlicensed use without a fee. I was convinced that this would lead to an immediate burst of innovation then – I was wrong (so maybe you want to take my enthusiasm now with a grain of salt). Just when this innovation explosion was supposed to happen, the recession hit – all we got was a burst of bailouts, not investment.

Moreover, it turns out that the original technical regulations imposed by the FCC then were unnecessarily difficult to comply with. Radios using this spectrum were required to be able to detect all broadcast stations they might be interfering with even if they incorporated location sensing and were able to check a database for licensed users. Now either approach is allowed, but radios don't have to incorporate both. In the interim, technology has moved relentlessly along: the cost of location sensing has gone way down as GPS chips proliferate; radios have gotten smarter and smarter and more and more capable of the kind of agile frequency use required when sharing spectrum with strangers.

We have all seen firsthand what happens when spectrum is left free for unlicensed use – the best example is WiFi. You can install a WiFi radio in your house without a license. Bluetooth, which we usually use to connect our cell phones to other devices, is another example where incredibly useful very inexpensive devices and uses have blossomed. Cordless phone are a third example. All of these uses coexist in some shards of spectrum which were undesirable because various instruments and machinery generate noise at these frequencies. In 1985 the FCC chose to make this spectrum available for unlicensed use. The chart below shows the flurry of innovation which resulted and hasn't stopped yet.



For technical reason, the ex-TV white space frequencies can be used for much longer distance transmission than the frequencies formerly available for unlicensed use. Moreover, transmissions at these frequencies go through walls and usually through leaves. Even though these signals won't go through granite (or brick walls), they bounce well so they effectively go around corners. These are as good as the frequencies which cell phones are on today.

Availability of the white space under new, more realistic regulations, is particularly good news for rural areas since we have less TV channels and thus more spectrum available. This spectrum will be important to the economical delivery of date communication, particularly mobile data communication, in sparsely populated areas with difficult terrain.

Eventually use of the white space may diminish the value of the licenses which carriers like Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and others bought at auction; that's one of the reason it took so long to get this use approved in a meaningful way. Those licenses serve to reinforce the control the telco duopoly has exercised over mobile communication; unlicensed use will open the way to more competition – something we need. White spaces are disruptive; our economy could use some healthy disruption.

Carl Ford, who knows a lot about such things, wrote:

"In other words the White Space decision is the CarterPhone decision of our time. [nb. CarterPhone broke the telco monopoly on devices attached to the phone network. Without it we wouldn't have had modems.]

"The old rules are being honored with the spectrum mapping required, but at least they did not force White Space to adopt costly spectrum monitoring techniques.

"Ideally it would be nice to see Mary and Tom Evslin lead a charge of enhanced service enablers in a regulatory free zone."

Nice of Carl to remember the disruptive days of VoIP. We're retired now but it still makes us feel good; we'll enjoy the charge no matter who leads it.

Related posts:

Fractals of Change: The White Space Opportunity - Priceless

Fractals of Change: White Space Momentum

Fractals of Change: The FCC White Space Regs – Pretty Good at First Glance [I was wrong]

Fractals of Change: The Other Vote on November 4th

Fractals of Change: FCC Vote Results – We The People Won

Fractals of Change: The Importance of the FCC



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