Microsoft leads internet industry bid to fill up white space
US heavyweights eye spectrum gaps for mobile internet
Comment One of the most dramatic battles in the war over the mobile internet could arise in the US from current lobbying over future use of the "white space" spectrum (the idle channels between the TV bands between 54MHz and 862MHz, set up to avoid interference, but now possibly to be used for internet access).
A coalition led by Microsoft, and backed by most of the heavyweights of the internet industry, has submitted a device for use in this white space to the FCC for approval, signaling the determination of these players to make use of new spectrum availability to promote their own business model. The main aims of the prototype are to demonstrate ways that interference with TV broadcasts can be avoided, and to showcase new services and access mechanisms to boost broadband competition.
Such a device could also be a route into the mobile market for Microsoft and other internet organisations like Google, although here they would face the really tough battle - from Nokia, which has already loosened its ties to the cellular model and is prepared to support the open IP model, provided it can continue to lead the way in devices, a challenge the success of its first non-cellular product, the Internet Tablet family, suggest it is more than prepared for.
Before new battle lines are drawn in mobile devices, the rights to the spectrum have to be won and many of the arguments echo those waged in other parts of the TV bands, where the broadcasting community is quick to point to fears about interference to hold back the wireless encroachment.
The consortium included Microsoft, Google, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Phillips - all with a massive interest in promoting affordable consumer access to broadband to boost their products and services - has been lobbying hard for the white space channels to be freed up for internet usage. So far, the FCC has not made a decision on whether such as service would "bleed outside its designated channels and interfere with existing broadcasts", though it has proposed a scheme that would open up buffer bands for unlicensed internet usage.
The lobbyists place heavy emphasis on the need for new spectrum that could boost access in underserved rural areas, since this remains a goal close to government's heart, as well as potentially opening up new user bases. TV spectrum, since it is below 900MHz and supports large cell sizes, is ideal for covering sparsely populated areas cost effectively.
Microsoft is leading the device creation project, despite its checkered history in handsets, because its Windows Mobile operating system has become the primary one underlying the efforts of the internet community to mobilise their businesses - adopted by PDAs and smartphones from Hewlett Packard, Palm, and so on, and still closely associated with Intel, while striking a blow against the ambitions of Nokia in the PC territory, spearheaded by the Linux-based Tablet. However, Google is also rumoured to be working on its own mobile phones, which would be more likely to support Linux than a system from Microsoft, its arch-rival in its core markets.
But both players recognise that they need to gain new spectrum and new user bases before they start to battle for actual dollars, and a joint effort will have more effect in this respect, as well as diluting Nokia's potential impact. The document filed with the FCC by the six partners stated: "As the world's largest producers of consumer electronics, software, semiconductors, personal computers, and peripheral devices, the Coalition's members stand ready to commit substantial resources to bring these advancements to consumers."
Google "recognises that the heart of the problem is a lack of competition on the broadband platform", said the company's telecoms and media counsel and lobbyist in Washington. "We're very interested in finding ways to create platforms for other broadband connectivity."
Some FCC commissioners are clearly excited at the prospect. "These devices have the potential to take the success of the Wi-Fi phenomenon to another level," said one of the five, Jonathan Adelstein, who has been outspoken in favour of ways to increase competition for the cablecos and telcos in the emerging triple play market.
Microsoft says devices based on the coalition's platform and on Windows Mobile would be ready for commercial release early in 2009. At their heart will be a cognitive radio that can avoid interfering with other signals in nearby spectrum. Such technology is the core of most approaches to freeing up broadcast frequencies round the world in the 700-900MHz range, including the important IEEE 802.22 (or Wi- TV) standards effort, which started work two years ago on an "intelligent" air interface that could tap into unused spectrum within an occupied band.
It aims to create a standard for fixed wireless (up to 1W power) and nomadic embedded systems (up to 100mW), and potentially for mobility in future, using cognitive radio techniques to switch automatically to a clear area of the band, and to avoid interfering with other occupying devices.
The WiMAX community has been particularly keen to claim TV bands for its own, and in March 2004 when the 802.22 group was set up, the 802.16 faction was angered when its proposal that the cognitive radio work should be under its auspices, rather than in a separate group, was defeated. However, this has not halted its supporters, led by Intel, in their quest to turn the 802.22 efforts to their advantage.
It seems that, as in other areas, Microsoft and Intel are leaping ahead of the IEEE work to try to create a de facto standard that can be brought to market rapidly, and possibly presented to the standards body as a fait accompli at a later stage.
They have certainly moved quickly in the past few months. In October the FCC gave the green light to technologies to use unused TV frequencies, provided they could demonstrate non-interference. Just three months later the Microsoft coalition had outlined its technology and sent a statement of support to the FCC, and on February 5 the specifications for the machine were sent for testing to the regulator's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET).
A drawing of the cognitive radio's test set-up, included in the filing, indicates that it will be able to access white space signals for a UHF radio, a CR scanner, and a laptop computer attached to network processor through an Ethernet interface. Users would at first specify a TV channel for the device to pick up. The machine would search for other signals if that one was already taken.
In its January statement, the coalition asked the FCC to:
- Authorise the use of "spectrum sensing" rather than geolocation technology (the main technique used in existing solutions, though not in 802.22, to find white space. The group argues that spectrum sensors do not need databases of available channels to function, and so are more flexible.
- Recommend that such devices check whether the channel is being used by a TV broadcaster once a minute, rather than every 10 seconds as recommended by the commission's first proposal.
- Avoid any delays in deployment of unlicensed devices. The FCC has provisionally okayed white space detecting devices to go on sale on February 18 2009, the day after all analog TV signals are due to cease.
Opposition to such demands will come not only from the broadcasters, which are still trying to delay the hour when they must vacate the spectrum, but also potentially from the telcos, facing yet more competitive threat, and the mobile giants, which will be keen to take the initiative themselves in mobile internet.
Qualcomm, for one, was quick to react, submitting remarks to the FCC urging it to insist that white space detection systems must be licensed. We'll now be on the look-out for the first sign of a cognitive radio internet device from Nokia, and then the battle really will begin.
Copyright © 2007, Faultline
Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.