Business

‘White space’ networks are coming — who will win, who will lose?

Above: White space

Image Credit: XONOVETS/Shutterstock

“White space” networks, the name given to networks using the bits of radio spectrum available in the gaps between distinct television channels, will soon have its first major trial in the UK.

Ofcom, the authority that regulates the UK communications industry, will soon be kick-starting Europe’s first mass citywide and rural trials, together with 20 technology and public sector organizations, to test fixed and mobile reception of wireless Internet signals over white space.

Ofcom announced the trial a few weeks ago, saying that they would run over the next six months. However, it appears they haven’t begun yet, and the organization is staying mum on the official start date. “We expect some participants to be in a position to proceed with their trials by the end of the year,“ a spokesperson told me when I contacted Ofcom directly for an update this week.

The signals will be used for various public service monitoring, such as traffic congestion sensors that can adjust traffic around jams, and flood warning sensors. Unsurprisingly, Google and Microsoft, which have been champions of white space networks for years, are behind the UK trial and are ready to move aggressively in the US based on the results. A successful UK trial will certainly buttress the effort to roll out white space networks in the US, since consumers are all for faster anything, but the first step to new adoption often happens in corporate boardrooms. So what companies are setting themselves up to win, and who could be on shaky ground?

Probable Winners: The Giants

As the Internet goes, so goes Google. Google is vociferously backing white space networks and taking a direct stake in network proliferation by managing the white space database. No one is better at monetizing Internet users than Google, and more clicks from broader and faster Internet access means more money for Larry and Sergey.  Additionally, the transfer speeds and access range of white space networks could help in speeding the spread of Google Glass, pet projects like autonomous cars, and core products like Android phones.

Microsoft’s KNOWS program (Networking Over White Spaces) means the software giant has already spent a significant amount of time developing and perfecting new, white space friendly tech. Likewise, InterDigital, the company behind the 3G protocol stacks of the Apple iPhone 4, which detects when data is lost and retransmits it, has been hard at work developing dynamic spectrum management systems (DSM) that would allow technology to aggregate up to four channels over TV white spaces band and combine the bandwidth of those channels. Also, don’t forget about Facebook. The personal content hub of the Western world is happy to monetize more status updates, more uploaded pictures, and more political arguments, and they would love it if you could post them from all points between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Probable Winners: “Cut the Cord” Companies

Technology keeps bludgeoning the old-school content distributors, even despite their current sorry state. It’s old news that the Internet has been undermining traditional broadcast networks and content distributors by allowing exponentially growing ways for Netflix, Hulu, etc. to provide content directly to the viewer through any Internet connection. White space networks take the proposition of cutting the cord one step further — you might not even have a cord to cut!

Potential Losers: “Keep the Cord, PLEASE!” Companies

Logically, those who seem forever unable to stay ahead of the new rules of content distribution are nervous for many reasons. The National Association of Broadcasters fought against white space due to “signal interference,” but they can’t be enthused by the prospect of a more powerful, cheaper wireless connection promising to continue stealing viewership from their crumbling empires.

Meanwhile, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and AT&T, are on notice. They have made a fortune by controlling the infrastructure and “last mile” of consumer Internet access. The huge investments they have made in more traditional infrastructure, and the localized quasi-monopolies those investments have often created, are in certain danger from a disruptive technology like white space networks.

Definite Winner:  You!

Unless you are trying to enjoy a quiet weekend away from work, the sort of access promised by white space networks is a real game-changer for the average consumer. If you ever wanted to watch Into the Wild while way off the grid, white space networks are your best bet, and they are coming. Right now, there are huge gaps in the US broadband map that will benefit hugely from white space networks, many rural areas are currently working on getting access to 3G wireless and are reliant on companies like HughesNet, which delivers rural Internet service via satellite (formerly split from DirectTV, another platform that may feel the pinch by improved terrestrial networks), whose offerings will need to improve as white space proliferates.

Ultimately, white space networking could make the excuses of “bad connection” or “dropped call” notions that the next generation will not comprehend.

Author’s note: I’ve reached out to a few of the trial participants to find out when they’ll begin their tests and am awaiting their responses. I will update the article as more information is announced.

Kate Voss is an entertainment and technology writer living and working in Chicago, where she covers everything from television and movie reviews to tech and policy issues in the telecommunications industry. She’s on Twitter at @kateevoss.


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