IEEE publishes white-space broadband standard

29 Jul 2011

ITEM: The IEEE has published its standard for Wireless Regional Area Networks (WRANs) using so-called white-space spectrum.

If you’re not familiar with the term, “white space” refers to the unlicensed spectrum left over from both digital TV signals in the VHF/UHF frequency bands and the “digital dividend” spectrum assigned to wireless broadband services like LTE and Wimax. In the US, where the FCC approved the use of “white spaces” in September last year, companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have been proposing to use the spectrum to offer so-called “Super Wi-Fi” service, which is similar to Wi-Fi, but with much wider coverage because of the lower radio frequency.

The new 802.22 WRAN standard takes advantage of the characteristics of VHF/UHF frequencies to offer data downlink speeds up to 22 Mbps at ranges of up to 100 km from the transmitter.

From the IEEE press release:

IEEE 802.22 incorporates advanced cognitive radio capabilities including dynamic spectrum access, incumbent database access, accurate geolocation techniques, spectrum sensing, regulatory domain dependent policies, spectrum etiquette, and coexistence for optimal use of the available spectrum.

While white-space activity has mostly been confined to the US at the moment (and to a lesser extent the UK), white-space spectrum could potentially be made available in almost any country that switches from analog to digital TV signals.

The ITU is already looking at the aspects of white-space spectrum as part of its overall work on the digital dividend, and the IEEE touts 802.22 as a way to “bring reliable and secure high-speed communications to under-served and un-served communities”, especially “less densely populated areas, such as rural areas, and developing countries where most vacant TV channels can be found.”

The snag – and you knew there was one – is how white-space spectrum is allocated, and to whom.

In the US, Republican Party lawmakers have proposed a new bill – the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act – that would govern how the FCC allocates digital dividend spectrum currently owned by broadcasters who want certain protections, such as the ability to move their facilities (with compensation) without losing coverage in the process, and stricter limitations on channel reassignments.

The bill gives them all that, but also contains several controversial provisions, the most notable one being the section requiring the FCC to put unlicensed white-space spectrum up for auction.

The idea is to pit companies who want it for exclusive, licensed use (such as AT&T or Verizon) against companies who want it to stay open and unlicensed (like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo). The latter group must come up with an aggregate bid that exceeds the highest licensed bid if they want white-space spectrum to stay unlicensed.

Critics argue that the proposed bidding process not only stacks the deck in favor of telcos, but also fails to recognize that the true value of open unlicensed spectrum is the inherent innovation opportunities that we’ve already seen with open-spectrum technologies like Wi-Fi.

“The innovation and experimentation we have seen through the use of unlicensed spectrum would screech to a grinding halt,” says Harold Feld, legal director of advocacy group Public Knowledge. “Given that unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi come from small and new companies, the future of new uses would be very bleak.”

The debate raises interesting questions for markets in Asia and elsewhere about the function of new unlicensed spectrum, the potential benefits of innovation and competition.

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