Broadcast broadband

I'm a bit late to the party on this, but a few days ago, there were reports of a new device that utilizes unused television channels (known as "white space") to deliver broadband Internet service. Backed by a coalition that includes Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP and Philips, a prototype device created by Microsoft has been sent to the FCC for testing.

I'm a bit late to the party on this, but a few days ago, there were reports of a new device that utilizes unused television channels (known as "white space") to deliver broadband Internet service. Backed by a coalition that includes Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP and Philips, a prototype device created by Microsoft has been sent to the FCC for testing.

The timing of such a device makes sense. With the shift to digital television, there will be less bandwidth waste and thus more opportunity to reuse spectrum for other uses. Broadcast frequencies in the television signal range can reach much further than those used in 802.11 / WiFi networks. A WiFi network that used television frequencies could, theoretically, blanket a city with Internet service.

That extended range could create its own problems. WiFi, by its very nature, has limited range, lending itself easily to multiple parallel networks. I'm not sure how that would work in a "Super WiFi" network that uses longer-range signals. Then again, I have 10 WiFi networks within range of my home, so it is at least theoretically possible that we could return to the days when multiple Internet access providers were the norm (dial-up was slow, but it had LOTS of competition).

Further, just as my router maps between my cable broadband network and my local home network, it could map between the wider "Super WiFi" network to my more localized WiFi network.  In other words, the technologies could be complementary as they serve separate purposes.  I could have my private WiFi network, and the "Super WiFi" network would fill the role that cable and DSL connections currently serve. I'll leave to someone else to figure out how a "Super WiFi" router sitting in my home would have enough power to broadcast a signal that could be picked up by a relatively-distant central broadcasting point.

Other concerns include the potential for signal bleed-over into adjacent stations. From another article on the subject:

Many broadcast engineers, including TV Technology contributor Charlie Rhodes, are dubious about adjacent-channel operation because signal power tends to “leak” out of assigned channels. This power leakage can also combine in such a way to produce interference on channels far above or below where the offending transmissions are taking place. It's this phenomenon that concerns Byron St. Clair, president of the National Translator Association.

If potential pitfalls can be avoided, however, it could serve as a boost to broadband Internet competition from a direction nobody expected. I've argued before that the best way to invite the desired competition in broadband Internet service is to stand back and let current high prices in the industry serve as cover for alternatives. Wireless networks, satellite providers, WiMax and even powerline Internet access are all options that show promise, and high prices would provide necessary cover as they enter the market. Once there, the resulting competition would help to push prices downwards.

Wireless Broadband in unused television spectrum is merely another potential competitor. Google certainly sees it that way. Regarding Google's support for the technology and fears that broadband Internet providers might charge a premium for Quality of Service guarantees for bandwidth-intensive operations such as video streaming (which lies at the heart of the battle over Net Neutrality):

"It recognizes that the heart of the problem is a lack of competition on the broadband platform," said Rick Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel in Washington. "We're very interested in finding ways to create platforms for other broadband connectivity."

I can't agree more. If Google fears incumbent broadband providers will act like trolls under the digital bridge, then Google (and Microsoft, who is also officially supportive of net neutrality rules, my personal opinion notwithstanding) needs to assist in creating an alternative more to their liking.

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