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Google Leads Recycling of TV White Space for Wireless Broadband


With a new trial network in South Africa and the Google Spectrum Database, the company is making a case for the value of unlicensed wireless broadband.

On September 14, 2010, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) debuted its first wireless broadband network in Logan, Ohio, utilizing signal from unused TV white space frequencies. The project, a collaboration between Spectrum Bridge, Hocking Valley Community Hospital, and the tech giant, was meant to demonstrate the potential for unused TV white space to improve and make more available wireless broadband, which would spark innovation. Now, Google is launching its second trial in Cape Town, South Africa, partnering with local organizations and 10 schools to create a new wireless broadband network entirely from unused TV white space.

In 2013, the debate over unleashing TV white space as wireless spectrum continues. Groups such as the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), as well as companies like Google and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), are calling for a reverse auction of wireless spectrum, whereby TV stations would sell unused TV white space to the government, which would in turn make it available as unlicensed spectrum.

Perhaps the most important question to the debate so far has been whether spectrum from unused TV frequencies should be licensed or unlicensed. Licensed spectrum is anything that is used to transmit data for which customers pay. Cell phone providers like AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), and Sprint (NYSE:S), and Internet providers like Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) utilize licensed spectrum to provide services to subscribers. These companies have exclusive licenses to broadcast on these spectrums.

Unlicensed spectrum, however, is not exclusively owned by any company; it is the spectrum that wireless devices use to communicate with each other, e.g. a computer and a wireless router, a garage door opener and a garage door, two radios, baby monitors, and so forth. (To read more about this debate, see my story from February, It's Not Super WiFi, but It's Still Important: The Debate Over 'Unlicensed Spectrum'.) With mounting pressure from Google and organizations like CompTIA, the FCC seems to finally be taking larger steps towards making unlicensed spectrum available. In a piece of news that was largely overlooked, on March 7, the Chief of the FCC outlined plans for increasing unlicensed wireless spectrum.

One of the most cited arguments against unlicensed wireless spectrum is that it will interfere with licensed spectrum, interrupting cell phone and Internet service. With this new trial, Google is seeking to directly debunk that idea, claiming that the purpose of the Cape Town network is "to show that broadband can be offered over white space without interfering with licensed spectrum holders."

Partnering with the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), the Wireless Access Provider's Association of South Africa, Comsol Wireless Solutions, e-Schools Network, and CSIR Meraka, Google is seeking to accelerate the push for more worldwide unlicensed spectrum as a catalyst for innovation and democratization of information. Google claims that using unused TV channels for wireless broadband "has the advantage that low frequency signals can travel longer distances. The technology is well suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas."

The Cape Town trial will be supported by a South African version of Google Spectrum Database, which was launched on March 4 in the US as a trial partnership with the FCC. The database is designed to allow industry stakeholders (broadcasters, wireless microphone users, licensed spectrum holders, etc.) to identify available spectrum. With its Cape Town development, Google is in the process of becoming a certified database administrator for TV white space spectrum. With such a database, users could employ dynamic spectrum sharing, meaning that a user's devices could access available spectrum while not being used by another device, which will make finding unlicensed spectrum efficient and non-disruptive to licensed networks.

The question of unlicensed spectrum has been debated at the FCC since 1985, when a small band of it was released to the public, which produced an unexpected burst of innovation in wireless products. With Google's might behind the cause of unlicensed spectrum, the Google Spectrum Database, and the new trial project in Cape Town, things are looking up for unlicensed spectrum from unused TV white space. Google's new trial project and database further the case that converting TV white space into broadband spectrum is a sustainable and valuable practice.

More tech news from Minyanville:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
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