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UK’s Ofcom announces first official white space spectrum trial in Europe

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UK regulator Ofcom has announced the first official pilot for white space frequencies in Europe, which it hopes will drive the technology towards a roll out for use by the telecoms industry next year.

While several big names including Microsoft, Google, Nokia, the BBC, BskyB and BT have performed private trials in Cambridge since 2011, this is the first time that the whole industry has been invited to test devices and services on the spectrum.

White space refers to the gaps in radio spectrum that exist in between frequency bands.

In the UK, white space TV frequencies were released by the analogue TV switch-off in October 2012.

It is hoped that the frequencies can be used to allow devices to transmit and receive wireless signals for use cases including rural broadband access, M2M networks, better signal penetration of buildings, IPTV, VoIP, or just improving data services using shortwave signals to compliment LTE and Wi-Fi.

“[White space] is a healthy ecosystem and [can improve] some wireless services,” said Sylvain Fabre, Research Director, Carrier Network Infrastructure, Gartner. “There's always the question of scarcity of spectrum and which players will come into the space. There are also quite a lot of problems around devices.

“Chunks [of white space] are not connected with the spectrum, so there are quite a few questions about how this would work in practice. Some bands are more weather-resistant than 3G, and some offer better Wi-Fi propagation for buildings. In some of the early tests Microsoft have done, they got speeds of 80mbps for short wave and over 400mbps for greater distances and this could be fairly useful.”

Ofcom CEO Ed Richards said: “Ofcom is preparing for a future where consumers’ demand for data services will experience huge growth. This will be fuelled by smartphones, tablets and other new wireless applications. White space technology is one creative way that this demand can be met. We are aiming to facilitate this important innovation by working closely with industry.”

According to research house Informa, if white space frequencies start being used by the mass populace to access data, sales of cellular devices will see a sharp decline.

“Consumers will be able to use tablets, netbooks and other handheld portable devices to access data through the white space technology rather than through a cellular connection, mainly to stream video content or view live television.

“Tablet vendors have been especially keen to push cellular devices to the consumer market which, in some cases, carry a mark-up of as much as €100 over Wi-Fi only models,” a spokesperson told Mobile Europe.

Furthermore, Fabre said the technology creates an opening for companies like Google, HP, IBM and Microsoft that aren’t natural telecoms players and work with a completely different product lifecycle and speed.

There has been some resistance from TV providers worried about interference with TV signal transmissions, but other objections are expected to come from the defence and emergency services, as is happening in the US now.

“The transport, sport and medical industries have raised concerns in the US about unlicensed devices connecting to the network. They fear that the devices will interfere with microphones, two-way radios and medical equipment in hospitals,” said Fabre.

Informa said the US has been trialling white space spectrum since 2008, but other than some broadband projects carried out in California, not much else has been done and no definitive testing has been done to establish whether the TV providers’ fears are valid.  

It would be “interesting” if the UK was first to approve white space given its tardiness with the 4G LTE auctions, added Fabre.