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The discussion of wired and wireless broadband often takes on the righteous aura of a holy war. Devotees of one camp or the other are adamant that theirs is the only true religion in the national effort to get broadband everywhere it needs to be.

Perhaps proponents of TV white space and other unlicensed spectrum technology can inject rational dialog into the broadband discussion. This technology can offer valuable short-term benefits while integrating with fiber for strong, long-term solutions. It may be the compromise that helps get faster broadband to rural America.

White spaces broadband as an unlicensed peacemaker

TV white spaces are the spaces on the TV dial that don’t carry TV channels. This set of frequencies is very good for moving wireless and mobile data, allowing for cheaper and better networks. The signals travel further using less energy, so network operators spend a less on equipment for standard deployments. Signals penetrate walls, leaves and other obstacles that stifle traditional Wi-Fi bands.

This technology potentially can move significant amounts of data at high speeds (estimates range between 10 Mbps and 40 Mbps), and  TV white space is unlicensed, which eliminates the cost of acquiring licensed spectrum. Further savings are possible because the infrastructure likely will require fewer radios than mesh networks.

Because rural areas typically have lots of unused TV white space, they’re fertile fields for technology that capitalizes on unlicensed spectrum. Cost per performance also is favorable since small towns and rural communities have relatively small populations (a.k.a. potential subscribers) that challenge the return on investment when broadband deployment costs are high.

Don’t call it Super Wi-Fi

“Super Wi-Fi” is a popular term. From a marketing perspective, “Super Wi-Fi” creates a simple mental hook upon which to hang a complex technology that actually is a work in progress rather than an industry standard. However, organizations such as the Wi-Fi Alliance prefer that the world doesn’t get attached to the term.

“Wi-Fi is one of several technologies that run on 2.4 or 5 GHz frequencies,” said Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa in a Gigabit Nation radio interview. “TV white spaces are another series of available frequencies. It’s still undetermined which technologies will take advantage of these frequencies. It’s unfair for this early market to be compared to the most successful unlicensed technology ever.”

Another concern as people use the term in conjunction with broadband is that the term sets an expectation that’s hard to meet and confuses the consumer. “Right now there are a few trials running with proprietary solutions running over white spaces and these also are referred to as ‘Super Wi-Fi,’” continued Figueroa. “But they are not open like regular Wi-Fi, and they don’t interoperate with Wi-Fi. The term sets the false expectation with the public that their Wi-Fi gear is going to work automatically with these proprietary solutions in a white space environment.”

What’s real in white space

One well-known trial is in Wilmington, N.C., which launched a white space network in January of this year. The city government is the only user of the network currently, and many of their applications help the city manage its assets and infrastructure, such as traffic lights and parking meters, rather than person-to-person communication.

The biggest initiative to move TV white space front and center in the community broadband space is AIR.U (Advance Internet Regions). This consortium of private companies, associations and nonprofit organizations are working to connect up to 500 colleges and universities with small towns and rural communities to build mostly wireless networks.

AIR.U’s efforts, along with trial communities such as Wilmington, should fast-track the standardization of TV white space technology and network buildouts. “The FCC opening these white space channels should make it faster and cheaper in the short-term to increase connectivity by leveraging campuses and surrounding areas,” stated Michael Calabrese, Director of the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Program and one of the consortium leaders.

Bob Nichols, another AIR.U leader said, “The need is so huge for greater bandwidth in underserved communities that they are organizing quickly and moving this initiative forward into pilot projects. Calabrese and Nichols spell out AIR.U’s game plan more in this interview.

There are clearly plenty of questions about what TV white space will look like as it matures, and challenges for the early pioneers. However, creative business people are engaged in plotting strategies that ultimately advance broadband deployments.

Matt Larsen, President of Vistabeam, a WISP in Gering, Neb. believes the contention between wireline and wireless could be resolved faster with white spaces in the picture. “Communities should tap into the stimulus-funded middle mile or other fiber infrastructure to support white space networks. Use these to reap the benefits of highspeed broadband, particularly in places where there’s nothing currently. As subscribers increase and local economies improve, expand the fiber to homes and businesses. People [and local government] will still need mobility, so that wireless infrastructure won’t be wasted.”

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

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