Monday, 27 June 2011

Ladies & gentlemen, we are floating in (white) space

This Wednesday is an exciting day for anyone who uses mobile data services in the UK. Why? Because on Wednesday the first trials of the White Spaces Coalition's frequency agile fast broadband technology begin in Cambridge. Now that analogue TV is very nearly extinct in the UK we can finally start making use of the spectrum for some economic good, beyond re-runs and reality TV.

To summarise the technology concept, the map of radio spectrum usage isn't a flat continium, but rather a comb with used bands separated by "guard bands" that prevent leakage from one channel into another. Furthermore, usage of the spectrum is inconsistent in different geographical areas, partly for the same technical reason (preventing leakage), partly because not all channels are broadcast nationally.

The upshot is that large portions of the spectrum are unused, which is where the white space radio technology comes in. The radios they use (effectively a modified wi-fi router) use the free channels dynamically, creating a fast network of reasonably long range. An intriguing member of the UK consortium is BSkyB, who bought The Cloud this year and hence have a substantial base of installed hardware off which to base a customer network.

Deployment of such a network would be good and bad news for mobile operators. Good because it offloads some of the pesky low value data traffic that to some extent still clogs their networks (although post-capping, at least customers are paying for it). Bad because this is yet another competitor in the ever-cut throat UK market.

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