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Digital TV Switch Opens Up New Service
Wednesday, 01 July 2009 00:00

Abandoned bandwidth could host new applications for trucking, rural net access.

The transition of broadcast television to digital technology from analog is freeing up a wide swath of the nation’s commercial airwaves, part of which could be devoted to wireless data transmission and other applications suitable for local and regional fleets.

The frequencies tucked into the voids between UHF TV channels—called white spaces—became available last month when the nation’s broadcast television stations adopted digital-only operations.

The Federal Communications Commission, regulator of U.S. airwaves, is creating an open service band with the newly available bandwidth. The objective is to expand broadband Internet access to rural areas, but other applications could fit in, too.

“There is a lot of momentum to create an unlicensed environment for mobile and fixed devices,” said Mark Crosby, president of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance, an advocacy group for wireless companies based in McLean, Va. “Politically, I think the new administration thinks this is good.”

The absence of licensing suggests the bandwidth would be open to anyone who can meet the technical challenges.

Crosby said companies such as Motorola, Google and Microsoft have been testing devices and studying interference challenges. Although much of the focus is on the consumer market, he said, commercial applications also might emerge.

A coalition representing broadcasters is working to ensure its members’ TV signals don’t suffer undue interference in the process, and they have taken their argument to court. That battle may take some time to resolve, but it’s unlikely new white-space services would be completely blocked. However, success depends largely on whether the kind of technological innovation some advocates forecast actually occurs.

“Could there be companies that put together . . . solutions for local or regional trucking companies? Absolutely,” Crosby said. “It all depends on the technology and what you’re trying to get done.”

He listed vehicle monitoring and on-site billing as examples of services that eventually could come about, but he noted that the delivery technology isn’t there yet.

“It is a viable thing, and it’s going to take a while to realize economies of scale, but I think all of this will take place,” Crosby said.

Some liken the potential of white-space signals to Wi-Fi on steroids.

Crosby said it’s “highly unlikely” white-space devices could function from the confines of a traveling vehicle, but they could be used at stops along the way.

“I would think that would work,” he said, noting that all white-space devices will be required to have geolocation and sensing capability that could detect nearby transmissions.

“The units have to be smart enough to know” what’s going on around them, he said.

Motorola, for one, has been studying the potential for commercial fleet applications, said Steve Sharkey, senior director of regulatory and spectrum policy in the company’s global government affairs office in Washington, D.C.

“White space could really provide a home for them to expand into data service,” he said. “There is a lot of spectrum available for mobile services.”

Sharkey said the technology is well-suited to environments that are not “line-of-sight,” such as urban areas replete with tall buildings, but he noted that channel capacity could be reduced in more densely populated areas.

In particular, he said, opportunities may exist for utilities in rural areas, where bandwidth demands aren’t as great.

“A lot of utilities operate in more rural areas where you don’t have a lot of television or use by other services,” Sharkey said. “We think that it will be reliable and that there will be spectrum available in those areas.”

He added that the unlicensed devices don’t require the same level of infrastructure as traditional licensed wireless systems that serve many regional fleets. The new systems are intended to augment, not replace, current communication needs.

“We don’t view this as a real competitor to the traditional commercial mobile cellular providers,” Sharkey
said. “It’s a little bit different. Those kinds of systems require a lot of infrastructure and a lot of management, which is probably not what you would find in an unlicensed environment.”

However, Sharkey insists, that doesn’t mean the devices will be unreliable.

“The technology has advanced so much,” he said. “We’re talking about cognitive, intelligent radios that
can work around protection requirements that they have to provide. It should be very reliable.”

White-space devices will operate alongside television stations and unlicensed frequencies used for wireless microphones and other equipment. Proponents say the operations won’t cause interference with existing services, but a group that represents broadcasters is not convinced.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbies on behalf of television and radio broadcasters, has filed an appeal of the FCC’s approval on grounds that the service will cause harmful interference to TV stations.

“All of this looks good on paper, but every time they have flipped the switch on one of these devices, something bad has happened,” said Kristopher Jones, communications director for NAB.

“In theory, these things would be wonderful,” Jones said. “Making that transition from theory to actuality is here all of the kinks have arisen, and that’s what the broadcasters are concerned with.”

The legal wrangling could stall rollout of white-space service, but product development still has a ways to go.

“Usually, you have a bunch of consumer applications that can evolve into commercial ones, but there is nothing that we have heard of yet, said Meghan Henning, a senior communications manager of the Consumer Electronics Association, Arlington, Va.

Henning said that she hadn’t heard of any specific applications geared toward trucking, but the opportunity for technology companies to develop new applications is there.

“The potential is not limited,” she said. “We think this is a huge win for innovation and innovators to come up with something. It gives them more room to play around with the vast capabilities the white spaces can deliver. We are very hopeful that we will see lots of cool and interesting devices that come out of this.”

Light & Medium Truck, 7/1/2009