UK plans mobile Internet using “white spaces” by 2013

Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the United Kingdom’s communications industries, has announced ambitious plans to introduce white space mobile Internet technology in the UK by 2013.

The UK would become the first country in Europe to use white spaces for a range of new consumer applications that includes rural broadband and Wi-Fi with up to twice the range of current technology.

The Ofcom-based technology works by searching for unused areas of the airwaves (“white spaces”) that exist in bands that have been reserved for TV broadcasts. These white spaces are used to transmit and receive wireless signals. Recycling spectrum in this way is considered a highly efficient use of what is a very limited resource.

The Ofcom plan offers significant capacity to help alleviate pressures on wireless networks. The company expects the amount of white space to be comparable to spectrum that is currently available for 3G services and significantly more in some locations.

Compared with other forms of wireless technology, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, white space devices are being designed to use lower frequencies that have traditionally been reserved for TV.

“Within Europe, we have been leading the way to try to harness this capacity without causing harmful interference to existing users of the spectrum,” said Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom. “The solution we have devised creates the opportunity to maximize the efficient use of spectrum and opens the door to the development of a new and exciting range of consumer and business applications.”

These applications include enhanced Wi-Fi and rural broadband. The majority of current Wi-Fi devices operate in spectrum at 2.4GHz. White spaces could provide new capacity, while boosting the range of devices, potentially enabling Wi-Fi networks that stretch across towns and cities. This is thanks to the lower frequency of TV white spaces (typically between 470 and 790MHz).

White spaces could also be used to provide rural locations with broadband services. In practice, this could be achieved by building a network of transmitters that use white spaces to link remote houses and villages to larger towns that are already connected to the Internet. Trials are currently being undertaken by industry to test this on the island of Bute, Scotland.

A relatively new area of innovation called Machine-to-Machine Communications allows information to be exchanged between devices. Many experts believe that, in the coming years, billions of devices will be able to connect wirelessly and via the Internet for a range of applications.

White spaces could be used to wirelessly transmit this information, using the additional range to reach deep inside buildings. This could be especially useful for wirelessly measuring utility meters in consumers’ homes — just one of a wide number of potential applications. Other examples include using white spaces to keep an inventory of stock owned by a business, or making it easier for scientists to conduct research by automating the measurement of different readings.

White space technology will work in a similar way to Wi-Fi, which uses a wireless router to send and receive information to other wireless devices. The main difference is that the white space router — or ”master“ device as it is known technically — will first need to consult a list of databases hosted online.

It will notify one of these databases of its location and update it on a regular basis. The database will then return details of the radio frequencies and power levels it is allowed to use. This will ensure that the devices do not interfere with existing licensed users of the spectrum, which include Digital Terrestrial Television and wireless microphone users.

Ofcom has decided to allow multiple third-party providers to develop databases, which will create a competitive marketplace and create incentives for operators to provide the best database service to consumers. Ofcom has also decided to make white space devices license exempt.

Ofcom is also considering the future use of other white spaces — such as those in the band currently used by FM radio services. It expects the technology to be launched in the UK in 2013.

In the U.S., the FCC is deploying a similar plan for white spaces. Broadcasters in America have opposed the use of white spaces, claiming it will open their broadcasts to new types of unlicensed interference.