Could white space become the next BPL debacle?

The white-space industry could either become the next WiFi market success or the next broadband over power line (BPL) debacle. And how the FCC handles its testing of white-space devices could make the determination.

Next month, the FCC is expected to release its findings from field and lab tests it conducted on white-space devices, and commissioners themselves are expected to take up any rule making thereafter.

The desire of the FCC and high-tech giants such as Google and Microsoft is to employ white-space spectrum or those unused TV channels to provide cheap, high-speed wireless Internet networks and open up the market to more broadband competition. But to approve the use of white space, the commission will have to base its decision on mixed testing results as well as determined opposition from major stakeholders--mainly TV broadcasters that fear interference with television signals.

The FCC's gamble on unlicensed spectrum worked in 1985, when the agency set aside unlicensed spectrum for devices that hadn't been invented yet. It did so despite fear that using those airwaves would interfere severely with microwave ovens and baby monitors. A few years later, WiFi was born and proliferated.

But then there's the BPL debacle. BPL, which in general involves broadband signals being carried by either fiber-optic or telephone lines and injected into the power grid onto medium-voltage wires, was heavily championed by the FCC back in 2003. Then FCC Commissioner Katherine Abernathy had heralded the technology as "broadband Nirvana" as it held promise to reach virtually every business and home in the United States with transport speeds as much as four times that of cable and DSL. (Interestingly, Google made a major investment in a BPL company called Current Communications Group, which recently sold off its BPL project in Dallas. Google is still searching for that third broadband pipe.)

At that time there was concern from amateur radio users along with governmental stakeholders and broadcasters about interference since the technology was anticipated to take up a large chunk of spectrum-from the 1.7 MHz band to the 80 MHz band. The enthusiastic FCC moved ahead after testing and was sued by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which represents amateur radio users, for not fully disclosing for public comment the studies the FCC used in its BPL rule making. Earlier this year, a D.C. district court agreed with ARRL, effectively halting the expansion of BPL until the FCC can come up with more facts supporting its conclusion that the technology doesn't cause interference.

Now the commission's mistakes have seemed to spell the death knell for the BPL industry as a whole. After the court ruling, the industry's flagship BPL deployment in Dallas was sold to a local utility and is being used for electrical grid monitoring.

Today, the FCC once again is faced with a technology that has the potential to become "the great broadband hope." And if the commission isn't careful, white space could become another BPL flop if it tries to ram the technology through without solid testing results. Though companies like Google may not like it, the white-space market may be one that has to evolve much slower.--Lynnette