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Ofcom plans to open-up Whitespace in UK — good news!

Thank you to Steve Kennedy who sent in this overview of the developments going on in the whitespace spectrum segment of the industry that the geeks amongst us will certainly appreciate.

Over to Steve:

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Ofcom, the ‘super’ regulator that looks after broadcasting, radio, and telecoms amongt other things has made a bold announcement that it plans to allow the use of whitespace spectrum in the UK and that devices will be license excempt.

Though the technology was initially devised in the US, Ofcom is the first regulator to openly welcome the technology and announce its plans for the spectrum and technology use.

What’s it good for?

Though Ofcom wont dictate what whitespace spectrum can be used for, they envisage it being used for wireless broadband (using the TV bands) as the radio signals propogate well (i.e. travel long distances) and go through buildings well too (or you wouldn’t be able to watch TV) which suits rural broadband and helps reduce the digital divide. The spectrum can also be used for WiFi like services i.e. high speed, localised services which could be used to offer connectivity around the house for things like Internet and even video and moving to the true Internet of things where all devices will eventually be connected. There are also uses for machine-to-machine communications devices, there are a many types of M2M type services which could be anything from home smart metering systems to transportation communications – so a car’s electronic management unit would be permanently connected back to the manufacturer’s monitoring systems and could fix fault remotely. In car M2M would also allow insurance companies to monitor the driving characteristics of the car (well driver) and the insurance on the car could be based on how safely the car is driven, also suiting auto-toll functions etc.

What is Whitespace Spectrum

Whitespace spectrum are sets of frequencies that are not being used in a particular area i.e. it’s the dead space between frequency bands. These often come about as frequencies will be allocated regionally, so that interference between bands (and regions) don’t occur. This is true for bands such as radio and TV transmissions as neighbouring transmitters cant use the same frequencies or they’d interfere with each other. Digital Television Transmissions (DTT) are based on regional multiplexs which are tightly controlled by Ofcom, but that also means there’s a lot of valuable TV (or radio) spectrum that isn’t being used in a particularregion.

The TV (and radio) bands are particularly valuable as they have extremely good propogation characteristics (i.e. they travel long distances and permeate buildings etc well). This makes them useful for services like wireless broadband. Though these bands are optimal, Ofcom may open other bands as it sees fit.

Geolocation is the key

In order for a device to know what frequencies it can use, it needs to know what area it’s in and what frequencies Ofcom says are available. Ofcom is proposing to utilise centralised databases (which it may subcontract to 3rd parties) which will hold location and frequency info.

When a device starts-up, it must first report its location to the central database and request frequency information, which it can then use. Ofcom may implement a ‘kill-switch’ such that if interference is detected, they can centrally turn-off whitespace transmissions.

License Exempt status

Ofcom is also being very pioneering as it is planning to make all whitespace equipment use license excempt (this is the same type of licensing that is used for 2.4GHz equipment such as WiFi and Bluetooth) which will require an SI (Statutory Instrument) which is an ammendment to the Wireless Telegraphy Act.

The UK has on of the toughest wireless regulatory regimes (which is also highly punative for breaches) – which stems from when it was introduced in the early 1900’s as it was much easier to send someone to jail for owning/operating an illegal transmitter than it was for spying. This means in the UK there is no such thing as ‘unlicensed spectrum’ (which exists in say the US) and all equipment that can transmit or receive must be covered by a license. License exempt status means that Ofcom publishes a license (set of conditions for equipment) and as long as the equipment meets those conditions a specific license isn’t required. Someone like a TV broadcaster, requires a specific license, which they pay a large annual fee for.

As part of the European Union, Ofcom has to abide by a harmonised EU spectrum policy, but it is being proactive in making this announcement now and expects equipment to be in the market by 2013. Ofcom has tried to be proactive previously with the auctioning of the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands (which it initially wanted to auction in 2007), but it was hindered by legal battles with the encumbent mobile operators so those bands wont be available until late 2012 at the earliest, hopefully the UK can lead the world with whitespace.

The UK is also being proactive in terms of producing whitespace equipment with a spin-out of Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) called Neul already manufacturing systems. Trials have shown broadband speeds of over 10Km supporting 16Mb/s and a single basestation can support over 1m end devices (for M2M applications). By 2012 the cost of adding a Neul whitespace chipset will be around $5 which will reduce to $1 by 2014 allowing mass market equipment to use it cheaply.

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Ah very exciting indeed Steve. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I’m looking forward to seeing some real world deployments!

You can find more from Steve over at Euro Tech News.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

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