White Space Spectrum is Dead Space, For Now

There are two undisputed facts when it comes to the future of white space spectrum that will soon move from serving as a buffer zone between broadcast channels to becoming a brand-new broadband avenue.

The first is that the spectrum will go untouched for at least a year, maybe even two: There are no access devices or business models in sight, and, most importantly, no wireless carriers on the horizon looking to tap into the new network option.

The second fact is that the broadcast industry isn’t done fighting to keep the spectrum roped off from access, despite a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling last week that white spaces use for Internet connectivity will not negatively impact broadcast operations.

“The landscape is such that it’s just too early to say what will develop. There is uncertainly of just who will provide service to access this spectrum,” Bonny Joy, an analyst for wireless device strategies service with Strategy Analytics told InternetNews.com.

Joy is just one of several experts who admit they’re not quite sure how white spaces will deliver on supposed promises that range from expanding emergency response communications and delivering broadband into rural areas to advancing digital technologies for businesses and consumers.

Yet is exactly those promises that pushed the FCC forward through years of testing before ruling that it will allow unlicensed access, with the stipulation that the FCC certify mobile Internet devices built for spectrum use.

“There are a lot of ifs with this,” Tole Hart, an analyst with Gartner, told InternetNews.com. “There is potential as the spectrum offers better propagation as a broadband option, but there are also complications,” he said.

As a technology option, the white space spectrum is a sort-of Wi-Fi superman, as it can travel longer distances, penetrate thick walls and overcome environmentally challenged locations that stymie today’s Wi-Fi networks. It can bring broadband to places like old buildings and forests — places no other technology can reach.

As bright as the technology promises are, deployment challenges loom big. The first hurdle is the development of devices that can locate spectrum slivers using geosensing and database technology.

Long road ahead

So far, Philips is the lone vendor to indicate it’s already headed to the drawing board as it envisions advanced video streaming capabilities. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Dell (NASDAQ: DELL), which both strongly lobbied for the FCC approval, have been mum on device possibilities.

When and if devices are in place, some market player has to devise services and applications, explained Joy. But even before that can happen, a wireless carrier will have to step up and serve as the connectivity conduit, said experts.

Doing so will likely mean infrastructure and backhaul investments, however, as cell towers will be needed, especially in rural areas. While carriers may be accessing the spectrum for ‘free’, there has to be a viable and realistic return on investment, explained analysts.

“Something like a Wi-Fi situation could come into pay,” surmised Tole, alluding to how carriers now offer subscribers Wi-Fi networks as either an add-on paid service or a free network option.

“The question, though, is what will be the economics of doing that,” said the analyst.

Another question is whether mobile users are willing to pay as well. Not only would users have to buy a specific device but the cost of a service plan, he added.

“At this point we have no idea what it could provide and what that’s worth to mobile device users,” said Tole.

If one industry group has its way, mapping out viable business models will be a moot issue before it needs to be dealt with. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is not backing down on its opposition to the FCC’s white spaces decision. The group wants a 70-day public comment period and lightly hinted in a press release that it’s mulling a legal battle.

The vote is “just the beginning of a fight on behalf of the 110 million households that rely on television for news, entertainment, and lifesaving emergency information,” the NAB stated in a release after the FCC’s vote on November 4.

“What we are doing is exploring our options as we haven’t even been able to read the text of the FCC decision as yet,” Dennis Wharton, NAB executive vice president of media relations, told InternetNews.com.

“This is in the early stages. We are not against new technology or expanding broadband but it should not be at the expense of the broadcast industry,” he said.

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