Thinking Tech

Marriage of Wi-Fi and white spaces not without challenges

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Companies like Microsoft and InterDigital see benefits to augmenting Wi-Fi with TV white spaces spectrum, but there are challenges ahead.

Wireless spectrum is a hot commodity, and that’s prompted regulators to take a hard look at newly available frequency bands freed up in the transition from analog to digital television. Called white spaces, these spectrum bands are in high demand largely because of their potential for augmenting other wireless technologies.

Microsoft, for example, is developing a new kind of Wi-Fi tech that uses tiny transmitters and receivers to switch between Wi-Fi and white spaces frequencies. And long-time wireless player InterDigital just announced it will demonstrate a similar approach at the upcoming Mobile World Congress trade show with partner Ittiam.

Interest from multiple companies shows there is a lot of potential in combining Wi-Fi and white spaces tech, but the challenges are significant too. On the positive side, stronger Wi-Fi would help ease the burden of traffic congestion when too many people try to access the same network, and wireless carriers are counting on Wi-Fi to help offload traffic from cellular networks as well. On the negative side, however, there are fierce regulatory battles underway on the Hill over who should control white spaces spectrum, and even if the legislative hurdles are cleared, it will take time to bring down the cost of new silicon in order to make this kind of augmented Wi-Fi commercially viable.

Angelo Cuffaro, Systems Director at InterDigital says:

You need radios that can operate in white spaces… You need industry uptake and buy-in from the companies that make the silicon to start to put the TV white space radios on silicon that makes them as cost-effective as Wi-Fi in general.

Whether white spaces and Wi-Fi get paired together commercially or not, the highly coveted spectrum will likely get used for augmenting some kind of existing wireless standard. Cuffaro believes that if the spectrum is auctioned off in licensed bands, then white spaces will become part of the Long-Term Evolution standard, or LTE mobile broadband. As the InterDigital executive points out:

There’s lots of use cases you can think of, from media streaming to gaming, to all sorts of indoor low-power applications [and] outdoor small-cell applications.

In other words, Cuffaro believes white spaces spectrum will get a partner, but whether it’s Wi-Fi or carrier-based mobile broadband remains to be seen.

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure