The FCC's White Spaces Decision: What the Heck is "Super Wi-Fi"?

The FCC has issued what will hopefully be the final word on White Spaces regulations, but what's all this nonsense about Super WiFi?

As expected, the FCC today voted to approve revised regulations regarding the so-called TV White Spaces, unused TV channels that are available for unlicensed use. Since I've written extensively on this before, the most important element for me was the elimination of the requirement for spectral sensing, which I've argued is of little use and ultimately could be a huge drag on the market. The revised rules also address the concerns of wireless-microphone users, although I suspect this will be a non-issue once the illegal users are weeded out via the required registration process. So the FCC pretty much acted along the lines of what I advocated in my last White Paper on this subject.

What I don't understand, however, is why the term "Super Wi-Fi", both with and without the hyphen, is being applied here. I've been seeing this silly phrase everywhere (and why the Wi-Fi Alliances doesn't regret losing control of this trademark I'll never know), but I can't see how these bands have anything to do with the Wi-Fi we all know and love today, and for one simple reason: the White Spaces channels are 6 MHz., and Wi-Fi needs 20-40 MHz. Channel aggregation might be used in some cases, but I don't think users can count on that. So - nothing super here so far. The increased range and improved in-building penetration enabled by the lower frequencies of the White Spaces (UHF, as opposed to microwaves) are a big plus, but there's always an inverse relationship between distance and throughput in terrestrial wireless systems, and there's fading when a signal goes through a wall. There's no magic here, and, indeed, really long range in the White Spaces is going to be all about fixed, not mobile, systems. Even here, Wi-Fi meshes will still be competitive in many cases.

To be fair, the Wi-Fi Alliance is in fact working on something for the White Spaces, but I don't think it will be Wi-Fi as we know it today. This project will depend, at least at present, upon developments at the IEEE 802.11af Task Group, who are working on a so-called "White Fi" standard. But such will take a while - .11af just got rolling in January of this year.

While I don't want to discourage anyone at this point, I don't think an 802.11 standard or Wi-Fi spec is required to make the White Spaces fly. There are lots of possibilities for those dipping into the cognitive radio waters, and, while rural consumer broadband is an enticing possibility, there are many others: municipal and public-utility services, security (as in alarm services, etc.), surveillance (including video), smart grid, telephony, messaging, machine-to-machine, and many, many more. Just as is the case with the ISM and U-NII bands, it's likely we'll see many wireless technologies at work here. And, with the revision of the rules, and assuming the opposition out there (primarily the TV broadcasters still pushing their obsolete business model) doesn't want to continue to kick up dust, there's a good chance we'll see commercial products operating in this spectrum in a year or so.

One final point: it would be great if the FCC could get the facts straight. Chairman Genachowski's statement that "Today's Order marks the Commission's first significant release of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years" seems to ignore the U-NII allocations (the 5 GHz. bands) of 1998 and 2003. And he, too, refers to "Super Wi-Fi" as "Wi-Fi, but with longer range, faster speeds, and more reliable connections". Ugh. Oh, well, it's the thought, and, OK, especially today's action, that counts.

Insider Shootout: Best security tools for small business
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies