When the long-awaited digital-TV switchover occurs next February, broadcasters will relinquish the analog channels some have held for more than half a century. Considering the prices mobile operators paid for "beachfront" spectrum above 700 MHz earlier this year, these unlicensed VHF/UHF channels -- known as white spaces and scattered throughout the 54- to 698-MHz region of the RF spectrum -- would easily have pulled in billions had they been auctioned.
But they weren't -- and a range war is raging now over how they should be used.
The first squatters in the newly unlicensed channels will likely be a handful of tech giants, including Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Motorola, which have joined with public-interest groups and media companies to create the Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA). Several RF companies with links to WIA members are at this moment testing prototype products known as white-spaces devices, or WSDs, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Transmissions from these WSDs would enjoy UHF propagation characteristics far superior to those of the now overcrowded 2.4-GHz band. Applications range from a data network that Google's Larry Page has described as "Wi-Fi on steroids" to all sorts of video, to networks of humble household objects like washing machines, toasters and light bulbs, all communicating with one another.
The brave new wireless world envisioned by the WIA could possibly disrupt the airwaves with interference -- and undoubtedly will upset the broadcasters' VHF/UHF monopoly. The broadcasters are livid, describing the plan as unworkable. And although neither side is saying so, it is not difficult to translate "broadband" into video and "unlicensed" into dollars.
The FCC has just concluded its field testing of WSD submitted by Motorola, Philips, Adaptrum, Shared Spectrum Inc., and Singapore's Institute for Infocomm Research.
While the FCC is not likely to issue an order regarding white spaces before October, the FCC's field test results will almost certainly start another round of vituperation between the techs and the broadcasters.
There is quite a bit of white space out there, particularly in rural areas of the United States, according to the New Frontiers Foundation, a member of WIA. But the contested turf is in large media markets where the broadcasters rake in most of their profits. New Frontiers, which believes the socially proactive use of white spaces can help close the digital divide, has estimated the percentage of unused spectrum varies from 18 percent in New York to more than 60 percent in less densely populated areas, such as Wichita, Kan.