Opening the vacant spectrum between TV Channels, known as “white space,” for use by unlicensed devices will be a positive step forward for consumers but it will not solve all our broadband woes. As the 700 MHz auction rules begin to take shape, it is important to be clear about which broadband policy issues opening the white space could help with, and which issues the auction policy must try to solve on its own.
In a previous post I discussed some of the benefits of opening white space, namely that it will allow for a similar proliferation of innovation that occurred in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band. The truth is no one really knows how the white space will be used. Before the 2.4 GHz band was opened, people thought it would primarily be used for cordless phones; no one knew it would be the birthplace of wi-fi, a technology that has entrenched itself into the fabric of our society. Venture Capital firms will begin funding innovators to think of new ways to use the white space to fuel the coming wireless revolution only after it is opened. Finally being able to use the white space will certainly lead to better home networking and machines communicating with machines as the quality and amount of spectrum available for limited range/limited power uses would be vastly expanded.
While I can't say all the ways white space will be used, I can say how it probably won't be: it will not be used to provide the third pipe that will finally break open the last mile bottleneck, thus reclaiming the internet from the ISP gatekeepers and ensuring a dynamic, innovative and generally neutral net. White space may be used to provide last mile wireless Internet connectivity at speeds comparable to DSL and cable, but only in rural areas where broadband competition is worse than the oligopoly city dwellers suffer under.
The data transfer speed over white space is closely related to the amount of spectrum available and the number of users. As this study shows, there are vacant channels everywhere, but there are more vacant channels in areas with less population density due to the smaller demand for broadcast licenses in those areas. Because of the great amount of spectrum available, and the small number of people who will be using the spectrum, it is likely that rural wireless ISPs will try using the white space to provide broadband.
But that does not mean opening the white space will give the country a third pipe. These rural areas with the most available spectrum are also the places that ISPs won't lay wires to due to lack of economic incentives. Most of these places are desperately awaiting the arrival of a second, or even a first second pipe. Opening the white space could drastically improve rural broadband penetration, but it will not be able to solve the more general lack of competition in the broadband market.
In cities, where people may have the esteemed privilege of choosing between paying (incredibly high prices) for DSL or cable, the high population density often leads to an overuse of common spectrum. Wired recently reported on the emerging problems wi-fi technology will experience as the spectrum it uses becomes clogged. If too many people attempt to transmit over the same bands of spectrum, interference occurs and no transmitions get through. These problems will be greatly alleviated by opening the white space; more available unlicensed spectrum will cause less crowding. The software-defined radios that would populate the white space could actually prevent overcrowding by using spectrum-sensing technology. Unlike current wi-fi routers, white space routers would only transmit on unused spectrum; if all the spectrum is being used it will wait its turn. This prevents a tragedy of the commons situation from occurring as it may in the 2.4 GHz band. But even without interference concerns, the lack of vacant channels and large population will make urban wireless broadband over the white space a pipe dream.
Opening the white space to unlicensed use will not solve the lack of competition in the broadband market. Licensing the white space would not help either, since the incumbents would likely be the winners of the licenses at an auction. The only way we can combat our lack of broadband competition is through the upcoming 700 MHz auction. Though numerous reports are touting the consumer friendly “open access” provisions Chairman Martin is considering, the consumer will lose if the FCC does not seize this opportunity to create broadband competition by placing a wholesale requirement on a piece of the spectrum. The current lack of open access is a symptom of a larger “lack of competition” disease. Without a wholesale requirement Chairman Martin will miss his opportunity to treat the disease itself. Bringing real competition to the broadband market is too much to ask of the white space.