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Spectrum Bridge solves the white space problem

Parcel it up and sell it cheap

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Last month saw the launch of SpecEx, allowing companies to sell on spectrum licences - but SpecEx backers Spectrum Bridge want to see us all competing for a few MHz in the brave new world of secondary markets.

America's FCC is firmly committed to a liberalisation of spectrum ownership, including sub-letting and reselling of licences. Spectrum Bridge reckons every one of us will be trading in spectrum licences within a year or two, as El Reg discovered in conversation with its CTO, Peter Stanforth.

Regulators around the world are relaxing technical restrictions on what radio spectrum can be used for, shifting licences away from being the temporary monopolies they've been in the past. With America's FCC and UK regulator Ofcom leading the way, the idea is to make ownership of radio spectrum like owning a plot of land.

It's not a perfect analogy, but as Mr Stanforth puts it: "It's probably the best analogy we have: no two houses are quite the same, not like one stock or share against another."

But while regulators tend to think in terms of housing, Stanforth reckons some plots of land will end as the seedier kind of motel: "[Spectrum] licences are two-three years at the moment - that could drop to minutes."

Spectrum Bridge haven't managed a single trade as yet, despite having spectrum worth $250m on their books. They're planning to start trading at the end of the month - the lag being in large part due to the careful vetting of buyers and sellers that they've felt obliged to do. Very soon SpecEx will be announcing it's handling a nationwide frequency too, should anyone want to set up their own mobile-phone network - but it's more likely to be broken up into tiny lots to maximise the revenue.

Large lots aren't just split up by geography on SpecEx; spectrum can also be licensed by time both in terms of slots, such as allowing multiple licensees to share a frequency on alternate seconds, and time of day. One user might only want connectivity in the evenings, another during business hours. Some users might only want a licence for a few days or hours, perhaps during an event, or even for a few minutes for a specific download: why pay for a 3G contract when you can rent the spectrum you want when you want to use it?

Which is where the white space argument comes in. Google, Microsoft and their mates would like to have free rein to make use of empty TV spectrum, but the companies that paid for exclusive use of those frequencies are up in arms in an argument that has seen claim and counter-claim. Spectrum Bridge reckons it can solve the problem by allocating short term licences to white space users, eventually in terms of a few minutes at a time, while controlling usage to ensure that TV services aren't interfered with.

"If I show up and ask you your permission, and you can set the terms of my use, you are much more likely to acquiesce to my use of [white space] than if I simply show up and say I'll try not to bother you, just pretend I'm not here," suggests Stanforth. "[This is] more palatable to the people who own the spectrum, not only 'cos they could make some money out of it, but we could show them that they could set the terms and conditions of that use."

So instead of the current white space plan: using a combination of GPS and an online database to work out what spectrum is locally unused, then monitoring for beacon signals and finally finding a gap which could then disappear at any time, Spectrum Bridge would see devices calling them up and renting some spectrum for an hour or two - it might not be free, but it's a lot more likely to work.

This is big talk for a market that's yet to trade, but right now we're renting time slots using a mobile phone, from a network operator that owns a frequency. Once devices can switch frequency as easily as they switch time slots, then renting by frequency seems an obvious development, and having spectrum owners vying for our attention does appeal. ®

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