Feb 242013

Super Wi-Fi promises to transform Internet access, and it’s all thanks to television. Until recently, TV signals were analog and suffered from problems intrinsic to that technology. One such problem is interference. Not only can a plethora of external radio signals interfere with the analog TV signal, but analog TV signals tend to “bleed.” That means that adjacent TV channels are likely to interfere with each other unless each channel is allocated a broad frequency range. The result is that analog TV needed a significant portion of the spectrum, which it rarely used.


Digital TV channels don’t need this extra bandwidth because, by their nature, digitally-transmitted signals don’t interfere with each other regardless of how close their frequencies are. About 70% of the spectrum used by analog TV consist of the additional bandwidth (known as “guard band”) allocated to avoid bleeding. The digital changeover means that this huge amount of spectrum, which is called “white space,” is no longer needed for TV transmission.

White space can be put to many other uses. One is what’s called Super Wi-Fi broadband. As most people know, standard Wi-Fi enables wireless broadband internet access in areas within the signal range of a Wi-Fi router. These areas are called hotspots and each is limited to about the size of a standard house or small restaurant. Additional Wi-Fi routers are needed to cover larger areas. Super Wi-Fi operates at a different frequency and uses a much more powerful signal. As a result, one Super Wi-Fi router antenna optimally located could supply broadband Internet access to an entire small town or city suburb. Its signal frequency enables it to easily penetrate walls, foliage and other obstructions, and is the reason its frequency was chosen for TV in the first place. A few dozen antennae could turn a whole city into a huge Wi-Fi hotspot. The implications of such technology are enormous.

In 2009, it was widely believed that Super Wi-Fi would cause a huge change in the way people make telephone calls: Most people would no longer need a landline or a standard cell phone because they could make calls with Wi-Fi enabled phones using VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems like Skype and Google Talk. More importantly, the cost of both Internet access and calls would be minimal.

The initial optimism, however, has diminished. Today, expectations are more modest than they were when white space first made the news around 2009. At that time, it was reasonable to believe that the additional spectrum freed up by the move to digital TV would be licensed by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to community groups and local authorities at nominal fees close to zero. That was wishful thinking and a little naïve for at least two reasons.

First, the cell-phone companies, who had invested huge sums in wireless licenses and infrastructure, understandably balked. Apart from seeing widespread free broadband access as unfair, these companies, somewhat ironically, covet the newly-available white space spectrum. Indeed, they are willing to pay for it because the exponential and unexpected growth of data hungry devices like smartphones and tablets is stretching the capacity of their existing networks to breaking point. White space bandwidth would take a huge strain off those networks.

Second, the knock-on effects of the financial crisis means the federal government examines every possible way of generating or saving revenue. Monetizing the newly-available white space spectrum is an attractive option. Consequently, the FCC has been instructed to auction a sizeable chunk – an amount of spectrum believed to be bigger than the total currently used by all four main wireless carriers put together. The government is expected to pocket a cool $15 billion when the deals are done.

The idea of making some of the white space available to the public has not been shelved. The FCC still intends to make a substantial portion of it available for free public Internet access. The agency hopes that this free spectrum will tempt smart electronics engineers and entrepreneurs to develop new devices to enable widespread use of Super Wi-Fi by the general public.

On balance, these developments are positive for the public and the wireless companies. They mean that by shifting some services to the white space spectrum, cell-phone networks won’t be overwhelmed by the constantly-growing demands of data hungry devices. It also means the companies will have the financial incentives to continue investing in their core services. Apart from that, by providing free access to Internet services, Super Wi-Fi will benefit the entire community, especially the 33% of the US population who, according to a Pew Research survey published in November 2012, can’t afford a home Internet connection. Considering the importance of the Internet in helping people learn, search for employment, acquire medical information, and simply communicate, free Super Wi-Fi is certain to be a ground-breaking initiative with positive long-term implications.

About the Author

The author of this article J D Spencer has been researching all the different broadband providers to see which one if offering a better deal.