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Ofcom announces participants in its trial of 'white space' wireless technology

Out-Law News | 03 Oct 2013 | 5:10 pm | 3 min. read

A section of the A14 in Cambridgeshire is to become the UK's first 'smart road', able to transmit live information on traffic conditions to drivers, as part of Ofcom's pilot of the use of 'white space' technology.

Companies and public bodies including BT, Google and Microsoft are to take part in various projects as part of the trial, which will run over the next six months. They will be looking at potential uses for 'white space', or the gaps that exist between radio spectrum frequency bands that are already in use.

Telecoms specialist Suzanne Gill of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that as smartphones and mobile internet access began to place more constraints on radio spectrum, opening up the use of white space to technology firms was a welcome move.

"There is tremendous potential to grow and develop as we start to understand the technology we have, but that growth risks being constrained by lack of spectrum," she said.

"I welcome the Ofcom decision to look at other ways of using white space – it's completely consistent with the Government's aims for the UK to be at the forefront of technology," she said.

The white spaces available for use in the pilot sit in the frequency band assigned to broadcast digital terrestrial TV. These spaces are occasionally used by other applications, such as wireless microphones, but only at certain times. The projects involved in the pilot would access the white spaces when they are not being used. White space devices and transmitters would be assigned a space when it is not otherwise being used, by communicating their locations to a database designed to minimise the risk of interference with any existing users.

The use of white space in this way is an example of spectrum sharing; a long-term objective of Ofcom which will enable more efficient use of available spectrum to meet growing consumer demand for data-heavy services. Ofcom ultimately intends that this space will be available for use without a licence, unlike some other parts of the radio spectrum. The amount of white space available varies by location, the power level of devices and the time of day at which the spectrum is accessed.

The A14 project is backed by the Department for Transport, and will be run by BT and Cambridgeshire technology company Neul. The project will use white spaces to transmit data on traffic congestion and varying traffic conditions to vehicles, and if successful could ultimately reduce congestion and even improve road safety, according to Ofcom.

Another trial will involve Microsoft and the Centre for White Space Communications at the University of Strathclyde working together to create a 'smart city' in Glasgow by linking a network of sensors using white spaces. Microsoft also intends to test how white spaces can provide people in the city, which has the lowest level of broadband take-up in the UK, with access to free wi-fi. Click4internet, the internet service provider, is to use white spaces to test rural broadband in hard-to-reach areas; while a number of other companies including Google and Nominet plan to test "intelligent databases" which could enable smartphones and tablets to connect to white space without causing interference to licensed spectrum users.

The pilot is the latest Ofcom initiative to tackle the increasing demand for spectrum, and begins alongside the publication of a document setting out the regulator's plans to manage spectrum over the next decade. Ofcom auctioned off parts of the radio spectrum to telecoms operators looking to offer '4G' mobile internet services in February, and was appointed last month by the Ministry of Defence to manage the sale of some of its share of the spectrum to commercial operators.

Ofcom's chief technology officer, Steve Unger, described radio spectrum as "the raw material that will underpin the next revolution in wireless communications".

"In the future it won't be just mobiles and tablets that are connected to the internet; billions of other things including cars, crops, coffee machines and cardiac monitors will also be connected, using tiny slivers of spectrum to get online," he said.

"This is likely to deliver large benefits to society; however there isn't an unlimited supply of spectrum to meet this extraordinary demand. This is why we need to explore new ways of unlocking the potential of spectrum – like white space technology – to get the most from this valuable national resource," he said.