Understanding TV White Spaces, Super Wi-Fi, WRAN and Wi-Far

By Joan Engebretson August 29, 2012

White spaces technology has a lot of potential, but it’s often misunderstood. I thought it would be worth a blog post to clear up some of the misconceptions about the technology, some of which have resulted from the unfortunate use of the term “Super Wi-Fi” to describe one application of the technology.

TV white spaces are vacant broadcast television spectrum. And yes, it’s in the same spectrum band that the government plans to auction on a voluntary basis, with broadcasters sharing in the proceeds. More on that later.

TV white spaces spectrum has been available on an unlicensed basis for a year or two. The FCC freed up the vacant broadcast spectrum to be used for wireless broadband after trials demonstrated that a database could successfully keep track of where the spectrum was not in use from one geographic area to another so that devices could be set up to use only vacant frequency bands.

At the time the FCC made the move, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the spectrum could potentially support what he referred to as Super Wi-Fi. But the Wi-Fi Alliance – which was not involved in creating new standards for the TV white spaces spectrum – later objected to the use of the term.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that some people assumed “Super Wi-Fi” would have greater bandwidth than traditional Wi-Fi, when what it was really more likely to have was greater range.

Complicating matters further, the first deployment of wireless technology in the TV white spaces band beyond the initial trials was not a point-to-multipoint deployment, which is what those who initially used the term “Super Wi-Fi” seem to have had in mind, but rather was a point-to-point implementation. That implementation involved a North Carolina municipality that used the TV white spaces band to extend an existing Wi-Fi access point into a park as a means of saving on the cost of running cabling.

Point-to-multipoint deployments in the TV white spaces band are potentially more disruptive, but they didn’t occur as quickly as point-to-point implementations because it took manufacturers longer to get product ready.

Last year, the IEEE finalized specifications for what it called a wireless regional area network (WRAN). That standard, IEEE 802.22, calls for supporting point-to-point or point-to-multipoint communications at rates up to 22 Mbps per channel over distances as great as 100 kilometers.

And that capability is highly attractive to wireless Internet service providers (WISP) who tend to operate in more rural areas with limited availability of DSL or cable modem service.

Equipment that fully supports that standard isn’t expected until next year, but pre-standard options are already available that can be software upgraded to support the standard at a later date.  Some WISPs already have deployed that equipment. And the technology should get a further boost from Air.U, an initiative that aims to help fund white spaces deployments as a means of supporting high-speed broadband connectivity in university communities in rural communities.

WISPs and Air.U are moving ahead on deploying TV white spaces equipment, despite uncertainty about the long-term availability of the TV white spaces spectrum. A lot of people anticipate that it will take the FCC quite a few years to getting around to auctioning TV white spaces spectrum.

And some WISPs hope that if spectrum they use for wireless broadband is eventually auctioned, they will have the opportunity to bid on it.

An executive from Declaration Networks Group, an organization focused on deploying and operating white spaces technology that will be involved in Air.U, offered a different take. He told me recently that he believes there will be sufficient vacant TV broadcast spectrum available even after the FCC auction. He doesn’t believe the FCC will auction off any spectrum below channel 37 – and he said there is a lot of vacant broadcast spectrum below channel 37 in rural areas.

Developers of white spaces equipment also are moving ahead. They’ve formed a trade association called the White Spaces Alliance and devised yet another name for white spaces technology. They’re now calling it Wi-Far, a moniker that could help convey the technology’s key strength – its excellent range.

And as Chairman of the IEEE 802.22 Working Group, Apurva Mody, explained to me this week, the term is intended to encompass the entire suite of 802.22 standards, which are already in the process of being expanded to include higher bandwidth options.

Let’s hope that name sticks, as it could clear up a lot of confusion about what appears to be a highly promising new technology.




Edited by Braden Becker

Contributing Editor

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