First mass trial of white-space wireless technology in Europe
White space radio is not exactly in the last chance saloon, but it is close. Touted since the middle of the last decade as the answer to many of the problems that plague wireless broadband connectivity, the technology has yet to prove its worth. Now a new European Union project could help the technology finally fulfil its promise.
White space is the name given to the bits of the radio spectrum freed up by the switch from analogue TV to digital, which takes up less bandwidth. Ideas on how to use these gaps in the radio spectrum vary widely, from providing longer range domestic Wi-Fi to wireless broadband in rural areas and making cities smart by packing them with wireless sensors.
What has delayed white space tech is the need to ensure that it does not interfere with TV signals. To do this, each device will be assigned a locally free frequency by a cloud-based geolocation database run by firms like Google. Until now trials of white space technology have only been small-scale, says Ofcom, the UK’s telecoms watchdog – and so cannot prove how viable the technologies really are. That could be about to change. In the next six months, Ofcom is kicking off Europe’s first mass citywide and rural trials with the help of 20 technology firms and public sector organisations.
In Glasgow, UK, Canadian firm 6Harmonics of Ottawa will test both fixed and mobile reception of wireless internet signals over white space frequencies. Sensors spread across Glasgow by the University of Strathclyde will also test the tech’s ability to connect up a “smart city”. For example, road traffic congestion sensors will feed back to smart signs that can reroute traffic around jams.
BT and Cambridge start-up Neul will do likewise on a major UK road, the A14. In Oxford, start-up Love Hz and maker outfit Oxford Hackspace will test a flood warning system that uses white space sensors. Meanwhile, wireless broadband provision will be tested across southern England in rural Hampshire, Sussex and Dorset.
“We don’t know which applications will succeed or fail,” admits Ofcom CTO Steve Unger. But with the coming “internet of things” where everything will be connected, providers have their fingers crossed. Major companies are certainly banking on it. “TV white space will be an absolutely key enabling technology for intelligent living. It is essentially free to use, it is underutilised and you get great broadband performance from it,” says Martin Curley, vice-president of Intel’s European research labs.
Both Bell Labs in New Jersey and Intel, Curley says, are close to developing white space microchips that will fit in a smartphone to offer free local wireless services. Meanwhile, Microsoft Research and the Chinese University of Hong Kong are working together to ensure frequency allocation is accurate enough and white space devices don’t interfere with each other.
Giving white space radio the kick start it needs is not only a technological challenge. “Too many trials are designed to prove a limited technical capability. If a technology has to work when three million people need to use it, the trials have to be designed to prove that,” warns Volker Buscher (pictured), director of the smart cities initiative at London architectural firm Arup. “These white space trials will have to prove the technology can scale up.”
Syndicated content: Paul Marks, New Scientist