Google launched its television white spaces internet trial program in ten schools in South Africa on March 25. White space internet, which Microsoft has also begun to test in rural Kenya, involves transmitting wireless signals through white, or empty, spaces between broadcast television airwaves. Since this type of internet requires no additional infrastructure, utilizing it could be a way to provide cheaper connectivity, especially to remote areas that have limited to no access via the traditional spectrum. So far, there is only one potential barrier: wireless signals could interfere with television signals. (White spaces were originally implemented to keep television airwaves from interfering with each other. Now that all airwaves are digital, the space serves no purpose. ) Google’s six-month trial in South Africa is supposed to give a definite answer to that.
Several experiments have put white spaces internet on the level of 4G because of its high-speed and ability to travel long distances and overcome barriers such as trees and towers. Tests have shown average white space internet speeds to be up to 22 megabits per second over a distance of 100 kilometers. (In the U.S., an internet service with that speed costs approximately $45 per month.)
If Google and Microsoft’s tests reveal that it is possible to have high speed internet that costs virtually nothing to build, it could have implications for spectrum internet providers. While upload speed is much lower than traditional internet (6 megabits per second maximum), a low-cost service could lead to customers of low-end packages to switch over. White space wi-fi could be beneficial to users in rural areas without a cable connection, as well as casual users of the internet. It could also support connectivity among institutions (e.g. college campuses) and free public wi-fi programs.
Like any other technological advancement that threatens a system already in place, this one has not been without regulatory hurdles. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on December 13, 2011 that allowed the FCC to prevent non-spectrum players from providing internet through white spaces. The bill mandated that the FCC auction off white spaces (or any other type of unlicensed spectrum) to licensed internet providers. The House and the FCC reached a compromise on February 16, 2012, allowing the federal agency to control the free spectrum, and ensure that the majority of it is not auctioned off to a major player such as AT&T.
The battle between the carriers and public access to internet is far from over. T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Intel, and Qualcomm wrote a letter to the FCC last month saying the agency should focus its efforts on selling the remaining spectrum to businesses. Some of them have also warned against public wi-fi, saying it could interfere with cellular networks. On the side of the FCC are Google and Microsoft, saying public wi-fi could enhance connectivity between devices.
U.K. wireless trade publication Policy Tracker predicted that 2014 would be the year that determines the outcome of free spectrum in countries with a comprehensive spectrum access. Until then, making the internet a common good instead of a luxury in places such as rural Kenya is an accomplishment in itself.