Shared Spectrum Company looks to fill holes in wireless world

As the debate over white-space heats up to a white-hot burn, Shared Spectrum Company (SSC) is coolly surveying the field and finding holes in some of the arguments for opening up white-space in an unlicensed manner just like its cognitive radio technology finds holes in spectrum.

The Vienna, Virginia-based company, headed by CEO Dr. Mark McHenry, specializes in cognitive radios, or Dynamic Spectrum Access radios, that detect where there are holes in unused spectrum and then redistributes the fallow spectrum for wireless use.

The technology, which McHenry started developing in 2000, has been gestating at and developed for DARPA, the Pentagon's research wing, and is being tested for battlefield use. The idea is U.S. soldiers can have higher quality radio access in harsh environments, where, for instance, enemy fighters might be trying to jam radio transmissions on certain parts of the spectrum.

Where SSC fits into the white-space debate is slightly ambiguous, mostly because of the uncertainty about the FCC's decision on whether to heed Google's and others' admonitions to make the white-space unlicensed. Therefore, SSC has been on the sidelines of the debate over the commercial aspects of white-space applications. 

"The only difference between what we're doing now and white-space is the type of detector you build. We've already built the white-space detector, but there's no market right now," because of the uncertainty, McHenry said in an interview with FierceWireless. "Now that the whole thing might fail we've purposefully stayed out of it."

The difference between SSC and the Googles of the world when it comes to white-space is the power of the transmission that could be used in the white-space and the nature of the system. Saying, "90 percent of what we want, they want," McHenry said that his company's DSA radios could transmit at a power level of 10 watts, when what the FCC will probably provide fore is about 150 milliwatts, or maybe as high as 1 watt. What that means, he said, is that those company's transmitting at that power level will not be reaching as many people as they could, especially in rural areas, where DSA radios could link 15 kilometer stretches that are out of range of wireless cell towers because of the topography.

"That's what the FCC should focus on," McHenry said. "Here's a bunch of under-served people who are 10 to 15 kilometers from a tower. How do we help them? And they have no other answer."

McHenry said what he envisions as one of the possible achievements of cognitive radios is a world in which SSC's software and radio technology is harnessed to provide spectrum to a smaller constellation of wireless service providers who did not have the capital to buy it auction. After a larger commercial entity had aggregated spectrum, DSA radios could be used to parcel it out smaller players. He said SSC was "not trying to be another Motorola," but that because of the uniqueness of DSA radios, it could partner with a larger company that had the capital and infrastructure to take advantage of the technology.

"Why do I need the big carrier? You can almost envision a new way of providing wireless," he said.

Analysts were both skeptical and appreciative of the technology.

Andrew Seybold, president of Andrew Seybold Inc., a consultancy firm, and a FierceWireless contributor, said he had some concerns with cognitive radio technology in general.

"When you have licensed spectrum and you have interference, you know who to go after," he said. "How do I do that if someone's using that spectrum, if suddenly you need it for something? It's an interesting idea and it's certainly worth looking at, but to me, there's a lot issues with it."

Seybold said rural build-out should be done using the D-block's 700 MHz spectrum.

Kostas Liopiros, principal and owner of the consultancy The Sun Fire Group, said the idea of cognitive radios turns on whether the white-space will be licensed or unlicensed.

"And that will make the difference in the reliability of the service. With licensing, you would divide it where you can have areas with guaranteed availability of service," he said. "Unlicensed is where their might be interference but you depend upon the device not to transmit."

Liopiros said because SSC does not have the capital to branch out across the entire United states using the D-block, it would have to find some partner to help it do so.

"It's a neat technology. I think it generally works," he said. "I think it's going to be driven by the marketplace and the licensed vs. unlicensed thing, and that goes into the FCC."

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