TV's white space re-purposing for Internet is rolling

Unused spectrum between television channels is being harnessed for broadband delivery. Pilot projects are underway in the UK and India.

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Credit: By Dinesh Bareja (Flickr: Panoramic view of the fields) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Microsoft in India is the latest organization that says it wants to pilot white space for Internet delivery. White space is the vacant spectrum that lurks between existing, used radio frequencies.

In Microsoft India’s case, it wants to harness empty frequencies between TV channels at 200 to 300 MHz. Currently, that band is primarily allocated to public service television broadcaster Doordarshan, according to Arnab Mitra in the Hindustan Times, who broke the story.

In the India pilot, those VHF frequencies will be used for last-mile, rural Internet delivery.

Bhaskar Pramanik, Microsoft India’s chairman, said in the same story that they’ll be getting a range of up to 10 km. VHF is also notably for good wall penetration.

Last-mile

That metaphorical last-mile is often poorly served in rural areas, and is hard to build out—it’s expensive if you use cables like fiber optic, and there aren't many people to pay for it all.

Wi-Fi, an alternative rural Internet pipe, is a microwave technology that operates in a higher band at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. It doesn’t have the same long range, though, unless it’s carefully squirted line-of-sight and point-to-point.

Wi-Fi is also busier than the VHF white space—there’s more interference, particularly around 2.4GHz. The VHF frequencies in the chosen TV band aren’t used at all, according to Mitra.

Europe

Microsoft India isn’t the only entity dabbling in white space. The UK is piloting a white space grab in digital terrestrial television broadcast airwaves at 470 MHz to 790 MHz. It’s the first country in Europe to play.

Like the India-chosen ones, those frequencies are also good for distances and getting through walls.

Trials in the UK have included land-to-vessel broadband, video feeds, external Wi-Fi and webcam backhaul and flood detection sensors. Note that external Wi-Fi and broadband is on the list.

Ofcom, the UK regulator, thinks that the technology could be ready for use in 2015. 

Costs

Where last-mile initiatives—like the TV white space grabs—really come into play, of course, is in appeasing voters. Often, there isn’t much connectivity in remote areas, and this looks bad for politicians.

Commercial-wired high-speed broadband is remarkably difficult to achieve, though, mainly because of the cost in relation to the user base.

It’s the same with wireless—why should a Mobile Network Operator build out a mast with associated backhaul or fiber for a bunch of wooly sheep and the occasional farmer? Despite promising it at the auction win. They find it easier to mumble-mumble.

Governments

Governments don’t really want to subsidize telcos in building out expensive broadband if they can help it, yet they have some tricky explaining to do to voters when swaths of a country can’t take advantage of important online activities, like education, and so on.

Conveniently, governments are the regulatory bodies in charge of dishing out, and clawing back, frequencies.

What with the UK government facing a general election in May 2015 and politicians gearing up to press the flesh there over the next six months, my guess is that we might soon hear a bit more about white space testing for Internet delivery.

In India, the Microsoft project is part of a grandly named Digital India government project. India concluded its biggest-in-the-world general election in May 2014.

Who knows, with 2015 a pre-election year in the states, maybe we’ll be hearing more about last-mile and white space here too.

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