Television static is now broadband gold.
The Federal Communications Commission's decision to open up the 'white spaces' spectrum to unlicensed devices could usher in a new telecom revolution, say analysts.
Like WiFi, the availability of free, unregulated spectrum could create new technologies and new markets, bringing superfast wireless connectivity to the masses. Unlike WiFi, it could also put pressure on wireless carriers.
"All the PR spin and FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) failed in the face of physics and the ground reality of engineering," says Sascha Meinrath, research director of the wireless future program at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy think-tank.
"Opening up white spaces will lower the cost of communications by facilitating new technology, software and devices is an enormous win for public interest," he says.
White Spaces Winners
Intel: The company's chips could power many of the new devices on the white spaces spectrum.
Google: New services from Google could be offered on the new spectrum. Google could even end up becoming a broadband service provider, perhaps as part of a consortium.
Motorola/Philips/Dell: They are likely to create the hardware and the devices to access the broadband services on white spaces.
Consumers: More innovative products, more wireless choices, and higher wireless data speeds. Also, the use of white spaces could finally usher in the era of seamless roaming across technologies.
White Spaces Losers
Verizon/AT&T/Comcast: These companies have paid billions over the years to gain exclusive rights to the spectrum. Now they will have to fight new entrants who have no legacy costs to worry about.
Professional Audio Equipment Manufacturers: These companies, which have so far operated in the white spaces, will have to spend more to create equipment that will work in different areas of the spectrum. They will also have to spend more on testing their devices to avoid interference.
'White spaces' refers to the unused bits of spectrum between UHF television channels, which will no longer be needed when the United States abandons analog television broadcasting and goes all-digital in February, 2009.
But just how to use that spectrum was a hotly-contested battle that pitted technology companies against broadcasters and wireless audio equipment manufacturers.
Wireless microphones and other equipment used by broadcasters and event producers already use some of this spectrum, so those groups resisted the idea of letting unlicensed devices onto their airwaves, willy-nilly.
The FCC's latest decision means technology companies such as Google, Intel Motorola, Phillips and Dell -- which lobbied to "free the spectrum" so they could build data services on it -- will emerge as big winners.
Update 11/06: Dell has said it plans to launch white spaces capable laptops
Telecom carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Comcast will feel the pain and be forced to adapt to a new reality, say analysts.
Verizon and AT&T have paid billions over the last few years for exclusive chunks of spectrum. Also, Sprint and Clearwire are creating a WiMax network that could also be threatened by white spaces-based broadband.
White-space frequencies are unlicensed, which means any company can use the spectrum. By contrast, wireless carriers have exclusive, licensed access to the frequencies that their phones use.
"White spaces could be a friend or foe of existing carriers," says Paul Gallant, an analyst with research wealth management firm The Stanford Group. "It might end up enabling carriers to enhance their retail offerings, or it could be used in completely new ways to undercut the existing business models."
Sprint declined to comment.
White spaces have been coveted by technology companies for their potential. The spectrum will allow wireless signals to travel two to three times farther than WiFi signals can today, including through obstacles.
Allowing for unlicensed use of white spaces means consumers will see a new generation of wireless broadband devices, said Craig Mundie, chief strategy officer for Microsoft, in a letter to members of the House of Representatives a few days ago.
It will enable low wireless broadband service in rural areas, self-forming mesh networks capable of routing traffic at speeds of 20 megabits per second and above within the mesh; and wireless distribution of content throughout the home and among devices, said Mundie.
That's exactly what consumers need today, agrees Meinrath. "All those problems of diversity on the airwaves and access to internet broadband connectivity are predicated on the artificial scarcity of airwaves," he says. "They will be alleviated."
The future of communications is in seamless roaming across not just networks but also technologies such as wireline broadband, WiFi and cellular networks.
"The devices of the future will allow you to completely un-tether yourself," says Meinrath.
Already Google has applied for a patent that would allow the company to create such a device.
Chip companies such as Intel are also likely to profit from opening up of white spaces. Intel could potentially develop chips that can ride over white spaces, much like the WiFi and WiMax-enabled chips it produces today.
The move could also mean that companies such as Motorola, Phillips and Dell could create new mobile devices that could become alternatives to smartphones or companions to notebooks.
For telecom service providers, it will be the beginning of a new world. Broadband connectivity over white spaces could change the telecom landscape much like WiFi did a few years ago.
Existing service providers will have to evolve fast or find themselves sinking as newer players, probably a consortium led by Google, enter the market.
"The key question is, who is going to pick up the ball and run with it?" says Gallant.
Meanwhile Cablevision is building out a mobile broadband service in New York using unlicensed spectrum that's not white space, says Gallant. If Cablevision's experiment succeeds Comcast, Verizon and other service providers could end up embracing white spaces.
As for Verizon's $4.7 billion winning bid earlier this year for the 700-MHz spectrum, it won't be an investment they are likely to regret.
from Wired magazine.