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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Where are we with white space radio?

This is the first of a two article feature. Initially, I want to reminisce about white space radio before looking at the current state of the technology, where I hope to ultimately foresee its final destination, although, I hasten to add, this is not in any way akin to the movie series of the same name. From what I recall having watched all five films, for the characters involved, it didn’t end too well.

Anyway, avoiding any parallels with Final Destination and the industry pundits involved with white space, let’s begin. Three or four years ago, white space radio was surrounded by enormous hype and it embarked upon a news flurry, which witnessed the industry ‘stop in its tracks’ as a whirlwind of excitement swept the technology off its feet. Crikey, white space radio was primed to solve so many problems!

So, what is white space radio?

I suppose I should really start with an explanation of what white space radio is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the technology and perhaps to serve as a reminder to those who were caught up in the torrent – presumably you survived.

I’m sure you’ve experienced, or heard about the ‘switchover’ from analogue to digital TV – a switchover that spanned a five year period. The onset of the analogue to digital switchover started in 2007 and completed in October 2012. In essence, those original analogue radio frequencies, that is, 50MHz to 700MHz, which were assigned by government agencies, became redundant and, as such, the frequencies were made available for reuse.

You see, the switchover to digital was a natural evolution, as the advancement of digital transmission techniques allowed ‘channels’ to be compressed, in turn, allowing those same channels to be transmitted adjacently whereas, with analogue transmission, such channels used a guard band to separate each channel and to reduce interference from one channel against another. These redundant radio frequencies are what have been penned as white space.

What excited the industry?

In fact, the upper range, namely the 600MHz frequency band, received most of the attention from the industry. This particular frequency is most relevant since it has excellent propagation properties, where radio signals can travel longer distances and easily pass through walls.

So, what was all the hype and excitement that captivated the industry a few years ago about? Well, in short, it’s what I’ve just mentioned – the ability of radio signals to travel longer distances and to penetrate walls. Yep, this must indeed make the likes of Wireless Personal Area Networking (WPAN) technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and others green with envy.

I’ll use a familiar anecdote to explain further, that is, something which some of you might have a distant memory of. Do you remember black and white portable TVs; typically the second TV in the home that was always situated in your bedroom? Well, to receive any picture, you needed an antenna to garner a TV signal. Invariably such antennas, in my heyday, were fashioned from a humble metal coat hanger, which was dextrously positioned and manoeuvred to receive the best and clearest picture, albeit still ‘grainy’.

That’s it, you see.  That essentially sums up the excitement surrounding white space at that time. It has incredible properties that permit it to travel great distances as well as penetrate walls, but its end results might be no better than the portable TV signals received using our coat-hangers.

The application scope of white space

In 2011, Microsoft, supported by Nokia, BSkyB, the BBC and British Telecom, all undertook one of the largest trials of white space in Cambridge, UK. Powered by Neul hardware, the demonstration offered broadband connectivity using several application scenarios, one of which was video chat within an environment that ordinarily would be considered somewhat harsh for the WPAN space.

Naturally, white space would solve some major gripes, most notably rural broadband connectivity.

Often, those located in rural areas would endure little to no connectivity, but it was envisaged that white space could offer, if you like, a ‘Super Wi-Fi’ solution to those affected. Now, whilst the name is grossly misleading, in reality, access to the Internet is limited to the dynamics of the frequency operating at the 600MHz band. The ability to travel long distances and penetrate walls might be all glossy and superhero-like but, in reality, there’s a side effect that, unfortunately, inhibits speed. As such, someone using white space to surf the Internet as a long term rural broadband solution might just, in temper and frustration, throw their laptop out of the window, along with any other device that claims ‘all is solved’.

A brand new open standard

Additionally, the application scope included Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connectivity and nowadays, because it’s trendy, the Internet of Things (IoT) – in fact, What is this Internet of Things, thing? Anyway, whilst I can envisage M2M as a viable application, something we’ll return to in this second feature, the broader scope of white space needs further clarification. In the meantime, the notion of IoT is inevitably subject to change.

White space is not void of the mantra of “Let’s make an open standard” and, as such, the Weightless SIG was established to offer such a direction and future for the technology. What’s more, it’s amazing to learn that it’s very much early days for the technology despite the three year or so furore. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since baby steps are usually highly recommended; the technology needs to ensure that it knows its role within its space (so to speak).

Until next time…

In the second part of this feature, I catch up with Professor William Webb, CEO Weightless SIG, to explore the current state of white space radio and discuss the future of the technology, as well as the Weightless SIG itself. I think it’s important to collate the ‘horses-mouth’ perspective, if you like, of a technology, rather than listen, observe and ultimately curate sometimes unnecessary speculation and rumours. I have always adopted a lifelong philosophy: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen?

So, this is where a daring Dr G signs off.

Originally published in Telecoms.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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