'White space' could expand Internet access

Wichita,KS (11-08-2008)

From The Wichita Eagle

A federal decision to allow Internet providers to use the space between television channels could help roll out wireless broadband to rural areas of Kansas -- and provide "Wi-Fi on steroids" in cities -- within the next couple of years.

Or, critics of the decision say, it could interfere with broadcast television signals in a time of widespread confusion as the nation switches to digital TV.

At issue is the so-called "white space" in the television broadcast spectrum -- mostly unused wavelengths that lie between the channel numbers.

The Federal Communications Commission decided this week to open the white space, at the urging of a coalition of companies led by Microsoft and Google.

The companies say it could help bring high-speed Internet service to rural America and provide much bigger and faster Wi-Fi "hot spots" in urban settings.

The new frequencies could serve smart phones, digital music and video players, laptop computers and even yet-to-be-invented devices such as "smart house" controllers, supporters say.

The FCC said its order will "allow for the use of these new and innovative types of unlicensed devices in the unused spectrum, to provide broadband data and other services for consumers and businesses."

The University of Kansas Information and Telecommunication Technology Center performed some of the research to determine whether data services could be sandwiched between TV channels without harming the TV picture.

The center's 2007 research report said that probably won't be much of a problem.
Broadcast television signals will be much more powerful than the data signals.

Plus, the new devices are designed to scan through frequencies and use only the empty space, said Dan DePardo, a KU research engineer who worked on the project.

Because they run on high frequencies, current Wi-Fi networks operate at short range and don't do well through walls and other obstacles, DePardo said.

The big advantage of using the TV band is that it operates at lower frequencies. That could allow for indoor-outdoor Wi-Fi coverage over a broad geographic area, DePardo said.

He said that could be a godsend for places such as western Kansas, where towns are small and widely separated and it's not economical to provide traditional landline broadband service.

"There's a lot of white space out there" in rural Kansas, he said. "There's a low population density and a low number of television stations."

Now that the FCC has approved, people could start seeing white-space access devices on the market in the next two years or sooner, DePardo said.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page lobbied FCC commissioners on the airwave issue, saying it could unleash a wave of innovation in wireless technology.

Consumer groups have weighed in as well, saying white-space devices could provide needed competition to telecommunications giants such as AT&T and Verizon.

But a wide and varied group of critics, including broadcast executives, Broadway producers, the Walt Disney Co. and even country-and-western legend Dolly Parton warn that the use of white-space devices could interfere with broadcast channels and wireless microphones used for sermons, university lectures and live performances.

Kent Cornish, executive director of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, said the FCC rushed to judgment on white space by giving broadcasters less than a month to evaluate a 400-page feasibility report.

"I understand these devices are going to... take Microsoft and Google to the next generation of Wi-Fi," Cornish said.

But "what's the rush?" he asked, noting that the switchover to all-digital broadcasting will take place Feb. 17.

While the FCC has made clear that it won't tolerate television interference from the new devices, "Would you even begin to take the chance that something will happen when people are going to be confused (by the digital switchover) anyway?" he said.

Devices to tap into white space will have to be thoroughly tested before they can be marketed, the FCC said in its statement.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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