Ofcom Outlines Plans For Spectrum’s ‘White Spaces’

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The UK communications regulator revealed how it expects so-called “white space technology” to work in order to free up valuable spectrum bandwidth

Ofcom continues to examine how it can free up valuable spectrum in the UK, after it announced a consultation about how a new form of wireless communication called “white space technology” will work in practice.

“There are a certain number of spectrum frequencies for TV broadcasts, wireless microphones and wireless cameras,” explained an Ofcom spokesman, speaking to eWEEK Europe UK. “With this broadcasting setup however, there is a whole lot of unused white space between these signals which is lying fallow.”

“Currently there is no developed technology that can utilise these white spaces, and what today’s announcement is about is a number of proposals about how this technology would work in practise to exploit these white spaces,” said Ofcom.

Signal Possibilities

“Typically these white spaces are in the lower frequencies, and the benefit of that is that these signals can travel greater distances and provide better indoor penetration as they travel easier through walls.”

So would these white space frequencies be used to offer enhanced broadband access in rural areas or to wirelessly link up different devices?

“Absolutely,” said the Ofcom spokesman. “Rural broadband provision could theoretically happen. That said, we are fairly cautious in our predictions, but we are trying to pave the way for it to be possible.”

Ofcom said there would be absolutely no impact on TV signals, or wireless microphones or cameras if these plans go ahead.

Geolocation Database

“We are proposing a geolocation database,” said the Ofcom spokesman, “which would contain all the online frequencies used in any location.” The idea is that the database contains live information about which frequencies are free to use at their current location.

“For example, TV broadcasters etc. who feed into the database, which would be maintained by a third party,” said Ofcom, which is intending to make it possible for interested companies to host such databases in 2011.

“If say a manufacturer wanted to use a wireless router that utilises these white spaces, they would have to consult this database,” said Ofcom.

Congested Airwaves

The router will describe its location and device characteristics to one of these databases on a regular basis. The database will then return details of the frequencies and power levels it is allowed to use.

“The airwaves that wireless devices depend on are becoming increasingly congested. We need to think about more efficient ways of using this limited resource,” said Professor William Webb, Director of Technology Resources at Ofcom. “Using the white spaces between TV channels is a good example of how we can both use spectrum more efficiently and provide opportunities for innovative new applications and services.”

“Our role is to encourage innovation rather than decide on what technology and applications should succeed,” he added. “To that end, we hope that these frequencies, which offer improved signal reliability, capacity, and range over existing wireless technologies, will bring clear benefits for consumers.”

In order to implement the proposed geolocation process for white space technology, Ofcom will need to publish a Statutory Instrument exempting appropriate devices from the need for a licence. Meanwhile the closing date for responses to Ofcom’s latest consultation is 7 December.

Busy Regulator

It is estimated that by the end of 2011, there will be a regulatory and technical regime in place to support white space technology.

Ofcom has been very busy of late, as the UK has been wrestling how to go about the process of allocating its free spectrum for a while now. Ofcom has previously said that it is looking to make 2G spectrum available for 3G services to help ease the mobile broadband capacity crisis.

And it is seeking to tackle weak 3G mobile phone signals, which are notoriously problematic inside buildings.

Ofcom announced in September that it was seeking to raise the limit of 3G broadcasting power, because mobile users in certain areas are still struggling to gain access to a decent 3G signal. If successful, it would mean that mobile operators will be able to throw out a more powerful 3G signal that should in turn provide better coverage and signal strength.