November 4th was truly a good news day in the United States.  Not only did the American people elect a leader who will hopefully begin to heal the damage done by 8 years of the Bush regime but, on the same day, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the use of new wireless devices that will operate in the television broadcast spectrum utilising open so-called white spaces in that spectrum.

The decision has been bitterly opposed by broadcast companies who claim that the devices will degrade television signals.  However, the FCC has carried out extensive testing and has determined that the devices can operate without affecting television broadcast services.  The FCC’s decision to approve this spectrum use was unanimous.

All “white space” devices will be subject to approval by the FCC.  This new generation of wireless devices will use a combination of technologies to operate within the television spectrum.  Most devices will have geo-location technology and will access a database of the incumbent services via the Internet, which will let them know what spectrum is available for use.  The devices will also have spectrum-sensing technology which will alert them to spectrum in use.  Some devices will be approved without the geo-location technology i.e. with just spectrum-sensing but they will be subject to a more rigorous approval process.

To date only prototype devices have been tested.  It is estimated that commercial products are about 18 months away from market.  How remarkable would it be if South Africa (and developing countries in general) were to approve the use of “white space” spectrum in time for those products to come to market?

So what makes these devices so much more amazing than WiFi?  It is more the spectrum than the technology itself that will allow “white space” devices to offer dramatically improved performance over WiFi.  Television spectrum has much better propagation characteristics than the 2.4GHz and 5MHz bands that WiFi uses.  This means that radio signals can travel further and move through obstacles more easily, making it both easier and less expensive to set up wireless networks.

This was an important decision in terms of delivering broadband access to underserviced areas in the United States but think how much more impact this technology might have in developing countries where underserviced and overpriced is the norm for access.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data