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Super Wi-Fi goes commercial in Singapore

Three pilot deployments featuring the use of "white spaces" in the 700MHz bandwidth aim to showcase how this untapped resource can help Asian countries enhance nationwide wireless connectivity and boost their IT industries.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Unused radio spectrum in TV broadcast bands offer an alternative way to deliver services through wireless communications, according to an industry group which today unveiled commercial pilots running this technology.

The Singapore White Spaces Pilot Group (SWSPG), which comprise founding members Microsoft Singapore, StarHub, and the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), gave details of the three commercial pilot deployments on TV white spaces (TVWS) smart radio as well as six new members to the group at a media briefing here Wednesday.

Jessica Tan, general manager of Microsoft Asia-Pacific's enterprise and partner group, said TVWS refers to unused radio spectrum in TV broadcast bands, currently 700MHz, which can be used as an alternative wireless platform to deliver commercial services.

Among its technological benefits are the ability to travel over longer distances, penetrate through more obstacles and tough terrain than higher frequencies, and requiring less power and hence, less cost, Tan explained.

With that in mind, the three founding partners collaborated with the six new members in the SWSPG to deploy three pilots on the technology, sometimes known as "Super Wi-Fi", in Singapore. These are the first few commercial trials to hit the global market, Tan pointed out.

The six new members are Neul, a U.K.-based TVWS services provider which will join as an additional founding member; Adaptrum; Power Automation, a joint venture between Singapore Power and Siemens to provide smart grid offerings; Singapore Island Country Club (SICC); Spectrum Bridge; and local company ZDW Systems. The SWSPG was formed on Apr. 19, 2012.

Tan said: "This series of commercial pilot deployments are not just academic exercises. They are commercial endeavors that will drive new applications, and promote growth of the software economy and cloud services not just in Singapore but also the region [through enhanced wireless connectivity]."

Through trees, over water and into homes
Jeffrey Yan, Greater China and Asia-Pacific director of policy and standards for entertainment and devices at Microsoft, noted the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initially spearheaded the push to evaluate TVSW and the U.K.'s regulator Ofcom took over the baton in the past 1 to 2 years.

The buck has now been handed to Singapore and the country's ICT regulator, Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), to promote commercial developments pm TVSW, Yan said during the briefing. This is why the three commercial pilots--which the SWSPG described as "through the trees, over the waters, and into homes"--are operated locally, he stated.

"Through the trees", for one, refers to the pilot involving SICC, Neul and Microsoft, in which the Super Wi-Fi is deployed to SICC's four clubhouses across the island.

Using Neul's radio systems and Redmond's geo-location database technology, the wireless signals linking the various locations are able to penetrate through thick vegetation and hilly terrain across distances as far as 5 kilometers (km), to deliver high-definition-quality video streaming, said Tracy Hopkins, vice president of sales at Neul.

Benson Chiew, senior IT manager at SICC, added the infrastructure for TVWS took four days to complete, which was much faster than the weeks it had initially projected.

The country club will continue to optimize the connectivity and expand the use of the signal to include the deployment of smart sensors, which will help it monitor the moisture of the golf course and track golf buggies among other use cases, said SICC General Manager Sylvan Braberry.

StarHub, in collaboration with I2R, Microsoft, Neul and Adaptrum, are also looking at providing better wireless connectivity to ships entering and departing Singapore's ports, which are among the world's busiest.

According to the companies, vessels can anchor in Singapore for as long as months before embarking on its next destination. During this time, they rely on satellite connectivity for their crew to access e-mail, Internet, and voice communication services, but this mode of wireless connectivity is costly and subject to time delay depending on weather conditions.

The marine Wi-Fi pilot project seeks to offer better connectivity by combining the intelligence of a TVWS geo-location database--which helps determine which white space is available and selects the best frequency for the connection to travel through--with cognitive radio devices, StarHub said. This project is currently being carried out in Changi, it added.

The third commercial deployment is a collaboration between I2R and Power Automation to allow the National University of Singapore (NUS) to meter the use of air conditioners and charge hostel residents according to their usage.

Oh Ser Wah, senior scientist at I2R, said its smart grid advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has been deployed at NUS' University Town, giving the university computer-based controls for its utility infrastructure via the meter data management system feature in the AMI.

By having insights on the amount of electricity consumed by the air conditioner in each hostel room, NUS is able to offer residents a pay-per-use model and prevent misuse of the air-conditioner, Oh explained.

This is made possible by better penetration of Super Wi-Fi signals in confined spaces and through barriers such as walls, and over other wireless technology such as Wi-Fi and 3G which are in the higher spectrum bands, he added.

Not limited to 700MHz
Asked if the potential of white space spectrum is limited to only the 700-megahertz spectrum band, which is used to transmit TV signals in Singapore and other Asian markets at least until 2020, Yan disagreed.

He said the potential of white spaces apply across all spectrum bands and not just in capitalizing on the digital dividend.

However, because of various qualities such as the low power needed to send the signal further, he noted that Microsoft and the other SWSPG members are focusing on the bands within the sub-1 gigahertz (GHz) category.

StarHub CTO Mock Pak Lum added TVWS offers significantly more bandwidth capacity and good penetration characteristics as it is in the sub-1GHz band.

"We see good potential in TVWS and are studying how we can deploy for backhaul and Super Wi-Fi," Mock said.

For operators such as StarHub, bearing in mind the cutover to digital transmission for Singapore is slated to happen between 2015 and 2020, the faster they can provide capabilities based on the 700MHz the better, he added.

He also would welcome local rivals--SingTel and M1--to come onboard the SWSPG as well, since this would contribute to the overall improvement in wireless connectivity on the island.

Yan pointed out since the spectrum is unlicensed, operators need not negotiate--and therefore not have to waste time ironing out--interconnection details and cost among themselves, as would be the case with licensed spectrum agreements. Instead, they only need to rely on IDA to determine how stakeholders should share the white spaces.

Tan Geok Leng, acting executive director of I2R, reiterated Mock's point, saying the pilot group welcomes all to join them. "We consider this the pre-competitive stage," he stated.

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