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Jocks strap into new gov-funded White Space boffinry base

Silicon Glen is after Silicon Fen's smart radio tech

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The Scottish Funding Council has bunged Strathclyde University cash to set up a boffinry base to develop cunning uses of spare radio frequencies known as White Space.

The technology aims to put unused spectrum to good use by dynamically assigning empty airwaves to wireless microphones and such things. It is hoped to enable plenty of no-fuss short-range ad-hoc communications in the gaps left by switched-off analogue TV and other holes. In theory.

To work, databases that know which frequencies are available and where must be built. Then a White Space hub device calculates its location, using GPS or similar, and checks with a database on what frequencies are empty locally. Client devices listen for the hub's transmission and lock onto those empty frequencies, while the hub checks the database regularly in case of changes.

It's not clear how much money from the public purse is going into the university's new White Space centre. But there will be enough to get it started and kick off research into what is probably the most important development in wireless since the invention of frequency modulation.

The centre was opened by communications minister Ed Vaizey, with reps from the university to talk about how marvellous it all was. Microsoft, BT Openreach, Ofcom and Sky sent their own bods over the border to talk about the technical aspects; Neul came up from Cambridge to show the technology in action and various home-county consultancies pitched in.

Although the UK is a leading light in White Space research right now, the work is clustered around Camby in the east of England. The Scottish government wants to create a similar congregation around Strathclyde, which is a laudable aim considering how important White Space networking is going to be, especially in rural Scotland.

Not that Strathclyde is entirely without White Space experiments: the university's Bob Stewart has been running a connection to the Isle of Bute for the last few years, successfully backhauling the island's Wi-Fi over a White-Space connection without knocking out local TV reception. But that deployment lacks the database element which is critical to widespread use of White Space.

Not that the UK's lead will last long: communications watchdog Ofcom is busy running our 4G auction so legislation to permit general use of White Space radio isn't progressing as fast as it could. France has started issuing test licences and other countries are experimenting with the technology, but it’s the logistics of licensing the databases and enforcing limitations which is the biggest challenge, and for that we'll have to hope that Ofcom is up to the job.

First deployments of the wireless tech is already happening in America, are using old television broadcast frequencies, but the model can, and will, be applied across the entire spectrum so it's well worth researching. ®

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