Is white space the next frontier for mobile operators?

Much has been promised from the potential of utilising white space spectrum, which is basically unused gaps between TV broadcast channels. The broadcast industry has fiercely resisted any intrusion into these precious frequencies over fear that TV channels would be subject to interference from unlicensed devices. But now lobbying from heavyweight technology players has convinced telecoms regulators that this spectrum is too valuable to be left unused, and TV broadcasters have relented, albeit grudgingly.

While the U.S. now leads the way in liberating white space spectrum, the U.K. is not far behind. The telecoms regulator Ofcom is apparently keen to see white space being used for new services and is encouraging U.K. operators to include the use if this spectrum, along with cellular bands, in their bids to run smart grid services in the U.K.

Some operators accepted the challenge and incorporated the use of white space technology into their proposals and it could be used to complement cellular networks when the smart grid service is deployed next year.

The use of white space for an M2M service might sound like adding unnecessary risk to what, according to those in the M2M business, is already an increasingly complex environment.

To counterbalance this risk, Glenn Collinson, co-founder of Neul, a white space technology developer, said that contracts such as the U.K. smart grid calls for guarantees that the service will cover the country's entire population, something cellular still struggles to achieve.

"The way to approach this is to use technology that is better-suited to providing coverage in remote locations in the first instance, and then migrate the coverage towards the more densely populated areas. White space is so clearly advantaged over the current licensed spectrum for use in this situation," he said.

Collinson maintains that white space doesn't cannibalise or threaten the existing mobile broadband business that big cellular operators are  focused upon, and can provide them with an additional resource to make the ‘internet of things' a reality without disrupting their cellular operations.

However, a stumbling block for white space technology is the lack of an ecosystem, which is vital to lift the new technology into the mass market.

While Collinson accepts that an ecosystem will take time to build and mature, he claims--from his extensive experience with Bluetooth--that it is much easier and quicker to build an ecosystem as a private enterprise initiative rather than a regulated model.

He claims that the Weightless standard, which is being developed by a number of wireless industry players, will provide impetus to the wider use of M2M within the white space spectrum.

To help promote the use of white space a EU policy group is investigating how other European countries can follow the regulatory lead set by the U.S. and the U.K.  This initiative could significantly boost the number of firms wanting to join a white space ecosystem.

Whether mobile operators want to adopt this unlicensed spectrum to offer and manage M2M services remains in question. A worry could be that maintaining connectivity is fundamental to providing M2M services, and unlicensed bands are not recognised as being the best for achieving this. --Paul