There’s been an astonishing amount of excitement stemming from an article in The Washington Post about an FCC plan that would ostensibly provide free, high-powered WiFi to every community in the United States.
As much as I love The Washington Post and as much as I respect Cecelia Kang, who wrote the story, the fact is, it’s not true. The FCC proposal isn’t going to bring free WiFi to communities nationwide, it’s not going to challenge carriers, and as proposed, it’s not going to work the way the hype seems to describe.
Here’s what’s happening. The FCC has made two proposals that aren’t actually related. One proposal is to expand the current 5GHz WiFi spectrum, something already reported in eWEEK back in mid-January. This proposal probably will happen eventually, but not until some government and commercial users are relocated to different parts of the spectrum, and not until some services that can’t be moved are protected.
The other part of the hype involves the now long-of-tooth “white space” proposal that’s been making the rounds since the beginning of digital television back in the previous millennium. The white spaces in question are what are called “guard bands” that were placed between analog television channels to keep television signals on adjacent channels from interfering with each other.
Guard bands were necessary back in the days of analog television because broadcasters transmitted a portion of the signal (the picture) using what’s called amplitude modulation (similar to what your car radio uses when you’re listening to AM radio), which is subject to interference.
The audio portion of an analog television signal uses FM. Now that all television broadcasts, except some low-power community stations, have moved to digital transmission and current televisions are built with significantly more robust technology that is subject to less interference, those guard bands are no longer really necessary.
If you look at the chart of television frequencies, you’ll notice that each channel starts where the lower channel stops, but in reality, there’s a sliver of open frequencies, which are the guard bands, and that’s what now forms the white spaces.
So what you have is a clear frequency between television channels that isn’t being used and isn’t necessary. A number of proponents have suggested that these open frequencies could be used for mobile data. Of course, other proponents have suggested additional uses as well, such as fixed wireless data. But regardless of whether this is used for mobile, fixed or a mixture of data types, it’s not WiFi. And chances are it won’t be free.
National Free WiFi Too Impractical to Ever Come to Your Community
Worse, it’s unlikely that these white spaces will be useful for devices such as phones. The reason is that the frequencies available in the white spaces vary by locality, and they cover a wide range of frequencies in the UHF television band. Those frequencies range from 470MHz through 700MHz. Frequencies above that have already been—or are about to be—auctioned off for mobile carrier use.
If you’ve been around long enough to remember the old days of UHF television, you’ll recall that getting a good signal at any distance was problematic. For a television signal to get to you, the broadcaster had to transmit using power in the tens to hundreds of thousands of watts of what’s called effective radiated power. While it’s certainly possible to send out data at those power levels, remember that data communications is a two-way process. And your phone typically puts out less than one watt of power, usually a lot less.
What this means is that you might be able to receive data, but unless you’re next to the transmitter, it’ll never be a two-way conversation. One way to overcome this is to place thousands of hotspots in a community as some cities do with municipal WiFi. This works, although with WiFi it really only works well if you’re not inside a building. With the proposed UHF solution, it will work inside buildings, but only to a certain extent.
As you’ll also remember from the days of UHF television, signals didn’t go over hills, around trees or through thick concrete walls. This was one of the biggest problems suffered by UHF broadcasters. The only thing that really kept them alive was cable television. UHF data communications won’t work any better, but if thousands of local hotspots are available, that won’t matter.
Another major problem is this isn’t a nationwide solution. Each locality has different channel allocations. So the white space may be at different frequencies in different areas. Because of the range of frequencies, it’ll be difficult to build the necessary radios and antenna systems so they’ll fit into mobile devices.
So what will happen? The white space solution is a natural for fixed wireless data carriers where you don’t need to worry about more than one frequency. This is something that can be accomplished easily and fairly inexpensively. But will it be free? That’s another question entirely. One way or another, those local data hotspots have to be paid for, and it’s not coming out of the FCC’s pocket. That means it’s either your taxes, or you’ll pay for it directly. But no matter how you look at it, there’s no such thing as free when it comes to data transmissions.