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Microsoft builds observatory to spy on Earthlings' spectrum

Mapping the unseen as a prelude to invasion

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Microsoft has launched its first European Spectrum Observatory, joining research efforts in Redmond, Seattle and Washington to work out which airwaves might be empty enough to exploit better.

The observatory is in Microsoft's Cloud and Interoperability Centre and logs radio use across the spectrum. The logs can then be accessed by anyone though the Azure cloud to create pretty charts showing how much of the spectrum is being used and, by extension, how much is lying vacant.

Spectral map of Brussels

Look at all those loverly White Spaces, just dying to be filled

The idea is to demonstrate just how much of the air around us is empty, and how effectively it could be filled using intelligent radios such as those being created to fill the White Space spectrum which is only available in a specific place or for a specific time.

White Space radios are required to report their location to a online database to get a list of available bands, a technique benchmarked by Cambridge-based Nuel, whose tech officer William Webb was wheeled out for the observatory announcement to remind everyone how important White Space is.

Microsoft isn't a huge fan of the database approach and tried to prove that detect-and-avoid was a better solution, only that didn't work... so databases are the way of the future.

Most radio regulators, including the UK's Ofcom and US watchdog the FCC, are tasked with ensuring maximum value is extracted from radio spectrum, but only the most short-sighted thinks that just means selling it to the highest bidder. Auctions are the preferred method right now, on the basis that he who pays most for spectrum has greatest incentive to make use of it, but that argument is undermined by the ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band at 2.4GHz which has provided enormous "value" - with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth changing how we perceive computing.

Microsoft seeks to demonstrate that existing mechanisms are failing, and that unlicensed White Space devices could fill the radio spectrum which much greater efficiency, and thus provide greater value to the population. That's probably true, if the White Space database systems work, and we're only just finding that out with the first US deployments into TV band White Spaces happening now and the UK still deciding how best to pick a database supplier.

If White Space works in the TV bands then it will quickly spread to the rest of the spectrum. And if you want to know where it will go first then just check the Spectrum Observatory.

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