'Super WiFi' set to boost rural broadband by 2012

Ofcom unveils plans for British ‘white space’ wireless broadband

British telecoms regulator Ofcom outlined plans to exploit unused radio frequency spectrum in order to create a new generation of wireless broadband services to improve access in rural areas.

With soaring demand for wireless bandwidth applications but a finite limit of radio frequency spectrum, use of pockets of un-allocated spectrum has been placed firmly on the agenda over the last 12 months.

“The airwaves that wireless devices depend on are becoming increasingly congested. We need to think about more efficient ways of using this limited resource,” said Ofcom technology director Professor William Webb.

“Using the white spaces between TV channels is a good example of how we can both use spectrum more efficiently and provide opportunities for innovative new applications and services.”

In September the US regulator the FCC approved a plan to use a continuous block of spectrum from 470-698MHz for a new service it called ‘Super WiFi’. Much of the free spectrum has become available due to the migration towards more efficient digital broadcasting. The frequencies being freed up are highly desirable for residential broadband services since they can travel further and penetrate buildings more easily than standard WiFi.

However the threat of wireless broadband services interfering with broadcast services is one in which the regulators have been keen to address. Ofcom appears to have chosen a simpler system than the one selected by the FCC but it’s still complicated compared to a regular Wi-Fi device.

The white space technology as envisaged by Ofcom will be required to contact a geolocation database which will enable the devices to avoid using any spectrum in use within the geographic region. The proposed American system involves the ‘super WiFi’ hardware actively snooping the airwaves to avoid potential conflicts.

Ofcom said it intends to facilitate companies being able to host these databases, likely British ‘super WiFi’ network operators will handle the task. Ofcom anticipates that white space devices will need to check in regular to a list of databases hosted online where the device will communicate its own features and geographic location at which point the database will tell the device which frequencies may be used and what power levels.

The regulator intends to enforce the system by setting up a ‘statutory instrument’ which would only allow operating without a licence for devices properly implementing the anti-interference technology. Other than that, Ofcom will not be dictating the standard used for the next generation of wireless broadband technologies.

“Our role is to encourage innovation rather than decide on what technology and applications should succeed. To that end, we hope that these frequencies, which offer improved signal reliability, capacity, and range over existing wireless technologies, will bring clear benefits for consumers,” said Professor Webb.

The regular intends that the legal framework and technical systems will be in place by the end of 2011 which suggests an eventual switch-on some time in 2012.

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