The appetite for new online services, smartphones, wireless devices and ubiquitous connectivity is on the rise across Europe. Meeting this growing demand is a significant challenge for telecoms regulators, who stand watch over the most coveted digital resource: spectrum. These radio frequencies, which allow communication over the airwaves, are considered to be a key asset for the European digital economy.
They are managed by governments, who license different individual frequency bands for specific uses, such as by radio and television broadcasters, mobile service providers and emergency services. Rapidly growing data traffic is putting pressure on regulators to maximize the spectrum resources available for wireless communication services and to use them more efficiently than ever.
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently established some of the regulatory framework necessary to develop a commercial domestic market for unlicensed devices operating in TV white spaces (TVWS). These are the unused wireless spectrum in the frequency bands usually reserved for television transmissions. This initiative is part of the FCC’s Report and Order that makes television broadcast frequencies in the 600 MHz spectrum band available for wireless broadband use.
This announcement was widely welcomed by stakeholders and is significant. An important component in efficient spectrum allocation is developing models for band sharing. The announced regulatory framework enables sharing in the popular UHF band. Broadcasters and Wireless Microphone users will share spectrum with, for example, new, specially designed WiFi devices. These WiFi devices will deliver new services to consumers, use less power and yet still be able to penetrate thick walls providing better in-home coverage without interfering with TV broadcasts.
Here in Europe, the need for a major spectrum management overhaul is one of the European Commission’s digital priorities. Neelie Kroes, the EU digital commissioner, has consistently pushed for a harmonized and more flexible regulatory environment for access to radio spectrum across the continent.
The European Commission has set up a high-level advisory group on future use of UHF spectrum for TV and wireless broadband. The group, led by Pascal Lamy, former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, has until July to deliver a report outlining how to allocate this spectrum band in the most effective ways in the coming decades.
In the UK, the national telecoms regulator, Ofcom, also recently presented a spectrum blueprint for the next decade. To prevent the risk of capacity crunch and maximize the economic benefits of available radio frequencies, this strategy highlights a number of priorities, including developing the field of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, and using the model developed for sharing UHF frequencies to other bands. These priorities create fantastic opportunities for providing low-cost connectivity in remote areas, improving wireless networks and connecting the countless, potentially interconnected devices that are expected to become part of our daily life in the years to come.
One of Ofcom’s stated priorities is to work with the government in developing plans for the Emergency Services. On-the-ground experience has provided strong evidence that TVWS and M2M communication in particular offer huge potential for those who struggle to stay alive in the wake of natural disasters, humanitarian crises and life-threatening accidents.
The value of TVWS in providing critical communications in an actual disaster relief effort was demonstrated in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in November 2013. First-response teams highlighted that TVWS had specific advantages over other wireless communication systems, notably satellite-based technologies. Not only do TVWS networks enjoy significantly greater range, allowing communications to be established with far-flung communities, but they are easier to install and maintain in the field. Moreover, TVWS networks do not cause any interference with other communications bands such as broadcast signals.
Closer to home, Microsoft recently participated in a test of white spaces-enabled “Super WiFi” equipment with Freshwater Lifeboat, an independent rescue organization operating around the Isle of Wight. Microsoft engineers worked in collaboration with click4internet, a local wireless internet service provider, using TVWS to communicate with the Lifeboat crew through Skype. A special M2M link was also established using equipment from Cambridge-based start-up Neul and Canadian company 6harmonics, allowing sensor systems on the Lifeboat to connect directly to shore based intelligent analytical and information systems.
Coincidentally the Freshwater lifeboat test was carried out at the same location Marconi made his first radio transmissions from and was almost exactly 115 years from the date, 28th April 1899, when Marconi equipment was involved in the first wireless “rescue” action. The East Goodwins Sands Lightship was in trouble and sent out a “CQD” distress call. The crew was promptly rescued by lifeboats dispatched from shore.
This successful trial highlights the significant possibilities for improving ease and efficiency in delivering emergency services. Automatically providing data from on-site machines, monitors and devices can give emergency crews, hospital teams and coast guard rescuers a better understanding of what is happening with incidents in real-time, allowing them to make better informed decisions and save lives more effectively.
Last week Microsoft announced the launch of new TVWS partnerships and projects on four continents. In Europe, we are proud to be supporting the blueprint for spectrum allocation laid-out by Ofcom through initiatives such as the Freshwater Lifeboat test. We are also currently working with Ofcom and other partners on a pilot in Glasgow, which will play a key role in providing data to inform Ofcom’s legislative proposals for TVWS. The pilot is being led by the Centre for White Space Communications at the University of Strathclyde, with support from the Scottish Government’s Demonstrating Digital program. It will use TVWS radios to enable Wi-Fi hotspots and webcam image backhaul at various outdoor locations within the university’s city center campus.
We also look to the EU with the hope that Pascal Lamy’s high-level group will support TVWS as one of the most promising sharing technologies to improve wireless broadband coverage to the benefit of all Europeans – from students and entrepreneurs to local authorities and emergency services.
Jim Beveridge is Director of International Technology Policy at Microsoft