Rice University wireless communications researchers and Houston non-profit Technology For All have begun providing “Super Wi-Fi” service in a neighborhood of 3,000 residents in East Houston, using “white spaces” spectrum. It’s just a “test,” sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation, but the possible use of unlicensed “white spaces” spectrum represents one more way competition in the broadband access business faces challenges.

White spaces are blocks of spectrum that for one reason or another are not used. In the past, where TV frequencies were separated in frequency to prevent interference in metro areas. Where the frequencies corresponding to “channel 2” were used, channel 3 was kept vacant, channel 4 was used, but channel five was kept vacant. The pattern varies from market to market.

With or without the transition to HDTV, which is commonly cited as the reason for the availability of white spaces spectrum, those big chunks of spectrum were “available,” but were not used.

Microsoft, Dell and Google are among companies that have backed the use of “white spaces” spectrum for wireless data services, available for use on a non-licensed basis to provide campus-sized areas broadband access, but without the upfront capital expense of licensed spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission’s rules do not specify what applications can be used in white spaces, but users must avoid interference with other licensed users when doing so. As Wi-Fi uses non-licensed spectrum, so the FCC (News – Alert), and many other interests, think white spaces could both provide broadband coverage to underserved areas and be the springboard to new applications and services.

It probably goes without saying that there is a long history of disputes between “for profit” service providers and governmental entities that want to provide their own communications services. There also over the past decade has been lots of thinking and experiementation about other non-profit or low-cost ways to provide some level of community broadband.

“White spaces” networks, some believe, could provide new ways to provide applications or services that depend on broadband access, but possibly in ways distinct from traditional mobile or fixed access. Historically, the revenue model has been the issue. Some have proposed ad-supported services, with generally unsatisfactory field experience.

So far, “commercial” or “large scale” white spaces networks do not exist. Some think the primary applications will be campus environments of one sort or another, not traditional residential applications Some have likened white spaces to Wi-Fi on steroids, but the analogy isn’t exact. Wi-Fi normally is a wireless tail to a fixed line connection that actually provides the last-mile connection. The Wi-Fi is used only for on-premises distribution. With white spaces, the access link and the local distribution link are essentialy the same as would be the case for a mobile connection.

That means the business issue of how to pay for the last mile access must be addressed directly. So far, nobody seems to know whether that is generally possible, except for cases where a single organization wants a campus-wide broadband solution.

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