Wider Wifi—”White Space”

Previously, I wrote about how a neighborhood in Houston, Texas was experimenting with wireless broadband [a.k.a. wifi] that used unlicensed “white spaces” between TV channels. Now, it looks like this idea, based on what the Federal Communications Commission authorized back in September 2010, has bred a standard that will increase its availability.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, who sanctioned the “wireless local area network” standard known numerically as 802.11, has given a number to this new “wireless regional area network” idea…802.22. According to IEEE’s press release, the “Wireless Regional Area Networks” that can be spawned from this new standard can cover a radius of up to 62 miles [100 km], based on flat terrain, and can deliver speeds of up to 22 mbps, which, by itself, would rival most existing available broadband services, wired or wireless.

But just because a new wireless broadband standard can provide speeds equal to much of what’s available now doesn’t quite mean it will. A more realistic scenario that could occur if twelve users are on any one unoccupied “white space” channel would have speeds at just 1.5 mbps for downloading, and 384k for uploading, on a par with DSL systems.

Even so, rural areas of the US, as well as in many underdeveloped parts of the world, are reported to be the most likely of areas to gain this new wireless broadband technology once it takes hold by 2013 or so, because those areas don’t have as much Internet access, but are certain to have plenty of white spaces due to less over-the-air digital TV channels. Larger cities, which have more TV channels on air, are less likely to have “white spaces,” though “channel bonding” [more than one empty TV channel] can increase the available bandwidth.

Though the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Engineering and Technology recently approved Microsoft, Google, and several others to oversee the geo-locational databases that would search for these “white spaces,” so that the wider wifi can avoid interfering with the TV channels, the really bad thing about the spaces, at least in the US, is that if Congress has its way, those could be all but legislated out of existence.

A 120 megahertz worth of wireless spectrum currently reserved for digital TV channels could end up on the auction block, with the likelihood that the winning bidders could be service providers like Verizon and AT&T. This proposal could not only mean relocation of hundreds of regular TV stations, but also make those “white spaces” for unlicensed wireless broadband disappear.

When the Verizons and AT&T’s of the wireless world use their existing spectrum to limit what had been unlimited wireless Internet services for their customers, competition from “white spaces” would be the proper antidote. A competitive free market, in the context of this discussion, is good because it means low prices and high-quality service for customers.

In addition to being a potential broadband solution in rural areas, the wider breed of wifi could make for wider hotspots, such as on university campuses, or for the Verizons and AT&T’s to supplement their existing networks.

When Google first brought up the idea of “white spaces” and wider wifi back in 2008, co-founder Larry Pagecalled it “wifi on steroids.” But even if Congress doesn’t otherwise render most of those “white spaces” useless in favor of an auction, the potential for a traffic jam could still happen. Which is why other ideasfrom LED lightbulbs to satellites in orbit are all on the table…the latter, provided that issues with GPS get resolved.

Given all that, do you think these technologies will make broadband competition, particularly the wireless kind, more meaningful?