More room for broadband?

Analogue television has finally been put out to grass, long live digital. But the switching off of the old analogue signal doesn’t just mark the end of an era – it’s the only thing we can do to keep pace with demand. Our insatiable and ever-growing addiction to all things digital – from broadband connections through to wirelessly controlled gates and garage doors – means that our airwaves are running out of room. So could the answer lie in the spaces between the signals – so-called ‘white space’?

According to wireless giant Cisco, by 2014 the level of global data traffic is set to increase by 39 times, reaching 3.6 exabytes (yes, that really is a word…) per month (around 4 BILLION gigabytes). This means that all wireless networks, including those offering broadband, are quickly approaching breaking point. One of the solutions is to potentially utilise the ‘white space’ between the current transmission frequencies.

This is done using specialist technology that scans for unoccupied radio waves. These spaces can then be used to send and receive wireless signals. The advantage of white space technology is that it mainly uses lower frequencies than traditional Bluetooth or wi-fi tech, and it also travels further with more ease, making it a good choice for multiple-use wireless technology around the home such as having several computers or smart phones connected to a single broadband connection.

Obviously wireless broadband networks are only feasible if there’s affordable internet backbone connectivity on hand hand to carry the traffic. With the costs of digging up roads and laying fibre optics stretching into tens of thousands of pounds for each wireless tower, satellite broadband is an ideal backhaul to close the loop and deliver connectivity which can then be shared via wireless.

Avoiding gridlock

While a lot of people are pinning their hopes on 4G and LTE technology to take the strain off existing wireless projects, it is seen as only a short term solution. We are all far more gadget-savvy these days, and wireless technology has become an essential component of modern living. As we consume more terrabytes of data and clog up the airwaves with signals, we are invariably putting more strain on this already-overloaded technology.

The radio spectrum where all wireless communication takes place has traditionally been divided up into clearly defined areas such as telecommunications, radio and TV. But because of advances in technology all these mediums are starting to overlap and the lines as to what’s what are becoming blurred.

As we move away from multiple outputs and towards a more unified system (relying far more on our single, all-encompassing broadband connection delivering telephone, internet connectivity, digital TV and radio), certain frequencies will gradually fall into disuse. And that could actually be a godsend, preventing the entire system from hitting gridlock.

Frequencies to transmit data have now become a valuable commodity, and are set to become worth even more as demand increases. But with the demise of analogue TV, more spaces in frequencies are opening up – which could actually offer a solution to rural broadband issues in particular. Combine this with the advances in machine-to-machine communication that have opened up even more white space, add backhaul by satellite broadband and you could have a solution that suits everyone.

The biggest bonus to this potential service is that, unlike 3G and 4G, white space will be opened up without costly licenses, and that could level the playing field for smaller broadband and community-based collectives to enter the broadband marketplace. Community broadband projects have had a shaky start, but some are now proving to be successful models that are being watched closely by other rural communities.

The availability of white space frequencies means that rural broadband networks could be created for a much lower cost. Obviously the post-analogue clean-up is only just beginning, but it will be interesting to see how this potential is utilised.