Sharing Spectrum for Better Broadband

Last week marked a turning point for wireless communication in Europe. Ofcom, the UK’s independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, has decided to enable industry access to TV white spaces (TVWS) – the gaps between radio spectrum in frequency bands which are usually exclusively used for television transmissions.

Ofcom’s decision is a significant one because at the moment there simply isn’t enough capacity in the radio spectrum frequencies which allow for wireless communication across the airwaves. As the European Commission has pointed out, with demand for wireless broadband increasing across Europe, using existing spectrum more efficiently by facilitating the sharing of frequencies is essential.

Microsoft has worked closely with Ofcom on a range of pilot projects to test TV white spaces technology – from lifeboat operations off the coast of the Isle of Wight, to enabling outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots on the University of Strathclyde’s city campus.

Other UK Ofcom projects included ships and boats in the Orkney Islands, wireless video streaming of animals at ZSL London Zoo and new IoT ‘machine-to-machine’ networks for flood defense in Oxfordshire. The collective success of the pilots has paved the way for commercial applications of TVWS technology across the UK.

While legislation allowing access to TV white spaces has already been enacted in the U.S., Canada and Singapore, Ofcom’s decision means the United Kingdom is the first EU member state to open up to the varied possibilities of this technology.

The European Commission has been following the proceedings in the UK with interest. Next month, a high-level Commission workshop on spectrum sharing by using geo-location databases will explore how to enable a more efficient use of spectrum frequencies, whilst minimizing the chance of harmful interference for other users. This is a welcome step in the right direction – towards enabling greater access to wireless broadband for all European citizens.

Outside Europe, TVWS regulatory momentum will build in 2015 with South Africa, Malawi and possibly the Philippines likely to conclude their legislative processes.