White space devices are on their way and could even be introduced before the end of 2013. That’s the message from UK communications regulator Ofcom, which has issued a flurry of detailed statements on the nascent spectrum technology in recent months.
News of progress in this area emerges during an eventful period for UK spectrum that has also seen Ofcom raise £2.34 billion (€2.7 billion) from its highly anticipated 4G auction – £1.1 billion less than predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). But any suggestion that revenue from white space devices (WSDs) might help plug the not insubstantial gap in Treasury coffers would appear to be ill-founded given that current plans call for them to be licence-exempt.
Broadband in rural areas and so-called machine-to-machine (M2M) communications – which, for example, might yield the ability to wirelessly measure utility meters in homes – are expected to be among the primary applications for WSDs, which would operate in frequency gaps between bands reserved for TV broadcasting.
Confirmation that WSDs are now moving away from the abstract towards reality came in January when communications minister Ed Vaizey (pictured) undertook the formal opening of the Centre for White Space Communications at the University of Strathclyde. Established with initial capital from the Scottish Funding Council, the centre – which has actually been in operation since early 2011 – is working to a 50:50 finance model with commercial partners.
Several trials have already taken place, with one recent project bringing together partners including BT and BBC to extend broadband access on the Isle of Bute via white space technology. The organisation has also been working on a project to create wireless network basestations powered by renewable energy.
Speaking to PSNEurope, Centre manager Dr David Crawford is keen to help clear up any lingering confusion about the practicalities of white space technology. It should not, he says, be mistaken for the earlier, abandoned notion of ‘cognitive’ devices; rather than the WSDs having the intelligence, they would refer to a regulator-approved centralised database of licensed users for details of available frequencies.
“As opposed to the devices being ‘cognitive’, it is the central database that will determine which frequencies are available to be used in a given location,” says Crawford, adding that the database would be “updated, changed or revised if it turns out there is a problem in a specific area.”
Bloodied yet unbowed by recent spectrum reallocation, PMSE (programme making & special events) users might be forgiven for fearing the worst about WSDs. But Crawford emphasises that their concerns are being taken into account. “Purely from a business point of view, it would be very difficult to create a sustainable business model out of something that isn’t able to coexist with other devices, so a large part of the work that’s taking place is focused on ensuring that this isn’t an issue,” he says.
The Centre isn’t currently working with any PMSE groups, but “would welcome” the opportunity to do so. Crawford posits the possibility of a project that would address “the susceptibility to interference of PMSE devices to transmissions from certain types of potential white space devices”.
For now, he echoes Ofcom’s official line that WSDs could see limited implementation before the end of 2013, but believes that large-scale commercial activity may still be 2-3 years away.
Whatever the timescale, one of the companies likely to be leading the way is Cambridgeshire-based R&D outfit Neul, which has devised a specific white space wireless network, NeulNET, and an open M2M communications standard, Weightless. As long-term observers of the spectrum issue will be aware, one of Neul’s key players is William Webb, formerly director of technology resources at Ofcom. www.neul.comwww.wirelesswhitespace.org