First public white spaces broadband network is alive in Virginia

White spaces are services that run in the unused portion of television spectrum

The first public white spaces network officially launched on Wednesday in Claudville, Virginia. It is uses sensing technology from Spectrum Bridge with software and Web cams supplied by Microsoft and PCs supplied by Dell. The project was funded the TDF Foundation.

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White spaces are services that run in the unused portion of television spectrum, and have been called "WiFi on steroids" by Google founder Larry Page. The battle for white spaces has been going on for years. IT companies like Microsoft, Dell and Google lobbied in favor of opening up the spectrum for data services, particularly broadband Internet access, while those in the broadcasting industry vehemently opposed the idea, even going so far as to create an advertising campaign to make consumers believe that white spaces would hurt television quality.

Almost a year ago, in November, 2008, the FCC voted to allow carriers and other vendors to deploy devices in the unlicensed white spaces spectrum at up to 100 milliwats, and up to 40 milliwats on white space spectrum adjacent to TV channels. However white spaces will support bigger bandwidth for faster downloads over longer distances than WiFi. It also is less prone to interference from walls and other obstacles.

One condition the FCC placed on would-be white spaces providers at the time is that the devices would need sensing capabilities that would automatically shut them down should they interfere with television. Devices were also to have access to a geo-location database to track them by their IP address or media-access-control address or a radio-frequency identification tag. Once the database had a fix on the device’s location, it was to be able to select the optimal white-space spectrum for the device and switch the spectrum as the device moves.

Spectrum Bridge provided the database that ensures the white spaces devices in Claudville do not cause interference with local TV signals. "The database assigns non-interfering frequencies to white spaces devices, and can adapt in real time to new TV broadcasts, as well as to other protected TV band users operating in the area," the company explains.

Dell was surprisingly quiet about its specific contribution to this white spaces network. Microsoft had original developed a prototype device that was trounced on at the time by the enemies of the white spaces idea, the National Association of Broadcasters. Tests of those early devices by the FCC were said to show that they did indeed cause the feared interference with television signals, though Microsoft said that the device tested must have been defective. A second round of tests on a new Microsoft prototype device didn't have the same problems.

A year ago, Dell released a white paper that spelled out its planned white spaces devices. Dell said then it planned to integrate white space radio chips into its laptops. Since Microsoft said its contributions to this first network was software and Web cams, presumably, Dell contributed the devices themselves, in the form of white-spaces equipped PCs. (Strangely the PC maker did not issue a press release about the project.)

Microsoft's Paula Boyd, a regulatory lawyer, applauded the project in a post in Microsoft's blog, "Microsoft on the Issues." She hinted at some of the behind-the-scenes haggling that still needs to take place before white spaces devices will be a regular consumer option. She wrote:

"We commend Rep. Boucher for his leadership in promoting broadband connectivity, and applaud Spectrum Bridge for its hard work developing and installing a wireless network that uses the available TV white spaces in Claudville to enable the small, rural town’s roughly 1,000 residents to have much greater access to information and services. ... Early on, some argued that the TV white spaces could not be used for broadband services, and that any use of the spectrum would adversely impact existing users of that portion of the airwaves. ...The FCC took an important step toward this goal when it made the decision last year to allow for the use of TV white spaces for broadband connectivity.  Now, the FCC is working to complete the outstanding proceedings that will set guidelines for white spaces use."

Microsoft obviously has a bigger interest in white spaces than just knowing in its heart that broadband is coming to rural communities. Microsoft Research has been developing multiple white spaces technologies and even deployed a successful white spaces network between Microsoft campuses in Redmond on October 16 ... which may have been the first live white spaces network ever. The project, dubbed Networking Over White Spaces (KNOWS) consists of software defined radios, cognitive radios, and multi-radio systems.

It seems likely that Microsoft is interested in licensing this technology to laptop makers, Windows mobile device makers, perhaps even service providers. Beyond that, it is possible that Microsoft would add it to its own home network devices such as its specialty home-server appliances. Maybe it would even get back into the home routers game (in 2002, Microsoft sold a consumer wireless router).

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Julie Bort

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