Wednesday, November 05, 2008

White spaces broadband faces uncertain future

Expectations should be tempered contemplating the implications of this week's action by the Federal Communications Commission approving the unlicensed use of television broadcast "white spaces" spectrum being freed up by the February 2009 transition to all digital TV broadcasting to deliver wireless broadband.

There are many unknowns as to whether white spaces will ultimately deliver broadband over the airwaves in the real world or whether it will remain an impractical concept that goes the way of Broadband over Power Lines (BPL).

They include a probable years long legal challenge by broadcasters worried over potential interference despite FCC field testing showing otherwise. It should be borne in mind the purpose of the FCC testing was to assess potential interference with broadcast and short range microphone signals. How white spaces broadband will perform and the kind of throughput it can reliably deliver remain major unknowns until it's actually deployed.

White spaces broadband could well end up being too little to late once the legal challenges have run their course given that Clearwire is already rolling out 2.5 Ghz WiMAX in some areas and deployment of 4G wireless broadband by telcos is expected by 2010.

Potential key advantages of white spaces broadband over these other wireless technologies is superior range and greater ability to penetrate trees and buildings since it operates in the 700 Mhz TV spectrum.

An additional challenge could come from telcos who may resist providing the necessary "fat pipe" backhaul for white spaces broadband if they see it as a competitive threat to their own wireline and wireless broadband franchises. That could generate more lengthy litigation such that between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telcos over access and pricing of line access under the Telecommuncations Act of 1996.

Finally, all wireless broadband technologies at this point don't appear likely to be able to match the fiber gold standard of 100 Mbs and greater throughputs that will increasingly be in demand for fixed broadband services. For the foreseeable, that relegates wireless broadband -- likely including white spaces broadband if it comes to market -- to a transitional broadband technology for fixed locations in areas unserved and underserved by wireline broadband providers and for general mobile use.

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