Home & Office

Microsoft, BT test white-space broadband in Cambridge

A group of 10 allies, including the BBC and Nokia, are setting up a test site in Cambridge for broadband based on the unused spectrum lying between TV broadcasts
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Microsoft, BT, the BBC and Nokia will test out white-space broadband technology in Cambridge, the companies said as they launched a new consortium to support the experiment.

TV transmitter

Microsoft, BT, the BBC and Nokia will test out white-space broadband tech in Cambridge, harnessing the free spectrum between TV transmissions. Photo credit: Frankie Roberto/Flickr

The Cambridge TV White Spaces Consortium, which includes BSkyB, Neul, Samsung, Cambridge Consultants, Spectrum Bridge and TTP, will test the use of white-space broadband to see how it works in towns, cities and rural areas. BT is already taking the technology for a spin on the Scottish isle of Bute.

"With the number of connected devices and data applications growing rapidly, and with mobile networks feeling the strain, we must find ways of satisfying the traffic demands of today and tomorrow," the consortium said in a statement on Monday. "This trial will attempt to demonstrate that unused TV spectrum is well placed to increase the UK's available mobile bandwidth, which is critical to effectively responding to the exponential growth in data-intensive services, while also enabling future innovation."

According to Neul, a recently launched Cambridge start-up that makes white-space equipment, there is around 150MHz of unused spectrum in the UK lying between the spectrum used for TV broadcasts. The white spaces are left empty to avoid interference between broadcasts. By way of contrast, the typical mobile operator has just 30MHz to play with.

'Wi-Fi on steroids'

White-space broadband is sometimes referred to as 'Wi-Fi on steroids', partly because it uses unlicensed spectrum. However, it has much better range than Wi-Fi — as much as 10km, compared with about 250m for normal Wi-Fi — and is better at penetrating indoors. The technology can be used for broadband up to 16Mbps, depending on distances covered. However, companies such as Neul see it as ideal for providing wireless connectivity to simple, low-data clients such as smart meters, which form the internet of things.

With mobile networks feeling the strain, we must find ways of satisfying the traffic demands of today and tomorrow.
– White-space consortium

The consortium said the Cambridge trial is "designed to validate that TV white spaces can be used without any impact on traditional broadcast television in the UK". It noted this has already been "successfully explored" in the US and some European countries.

Specifically, the consortium will test applications such as the streaming of BBC and BSkyB video to devices from manufacturers such as Nokia and Samsung. White space 'hotspots' will be established in local pubs, commercial and residential premises.

Cambridge has been chosen both for its strong wireless tech industry and the fact that it is "distinguished by a dense mixture of buildings, including the historic stone buildings of its colleges, which offer a unique opportunity to demonstrate the penetration of TV white-spaces signals when compared with other higher frequency networks such as Wi-Fi", the consortium said.

There are also several villages near Cambridge with poor broadband access, meaning it provides an ideal opportunity to test the range of white-space broadband.

White-space permission

Ofcom, which has granted a licence for the trial, is yet to give its permission for a general rollout of white-space technology in the UK.

Microsoft has been heavily involved in lobbying the FTC to get white-space broadband running in the US, and is now doing much the same here, the company's director of technical affairs for the UK said on Monday.

"We recognise the need for more broadband connectivity, specifically mobile connectivity, and there's not enough spectrum available," Jim Beveridge told ZDNet UK.

"A fair number of people out there are just waking up to the fact that there is a shortage of mobile spectrum [and the Cambridge white space trial is part of] an educational process just to show people that this technology is not some future stuff," he added.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.
Editorial standards