VARs See Hurry-Up-And-Wait Scenario In FCC White Space Opening

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week unanimously approved an order to make the white space portion of the television broadcast spectrum available for public use in wireless networks. Not only is the move the first major release of unlicensed spectrum by the FCC in nearly 25 years, but in the FCC's estimation, it could pave the way for wireless networks that can transmit data farther and more robustly, plus provide wireless to underserved coverage areas and alleviate wireless dead zones.

But the FCC's ruling -- announced Thursday and six years after the FCC first proposed the idea -- raises more questions than answers, say wireless VARs. The release of a spectrum that's more than six decades old is unto itself an event, but it's effect on the wireless landscape in the short-term will be minimal, especially with so many issues still to address.

For example, will the spectrum transmit one-way or two-way? If it's positioned alongside the existing Wi-Fi spectrum, are both spectrums then needed? What about power consumption, especially for devices that could support both Wi-Fi and so-called "Wi-Fi on steroids"?

It's all very interesting, said Gary Berzack, CTO and COO of eTribeca, a New York-based solution provider, but if vendors are serious about building devices to support the opened spectrum, they need to be clear about expectations and how they expect those devices to fit alongside existing Wi-Fi devices.

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"How quickly will the majors come to market?" asked Berzack. "And, say it's launched it as a fully-baked product inside the Intel chipset, on Dell or HP platforms, for example. Well, what about the billion other Wi-Fi devices that are already there and are already integrated?"

Google, Dell, Microsoft and Motorola are among the major tech vendors that pushed hard for the FCC's decision, and several wireless vendors voiced their support of it Thursday. In a statement to CRN, Aruba Networks Founder and CTO Keerti Melkote said the move "will drive a great deal of innovation in the wireless space" and that "TV whitespace as unlicensed spectrum promises to change the game in network access in ways that benefit consumers."

Wireless solution providers interviewed by CRN this week said it would be incumbent upon VARs, however, to answer the "Big Why" -- that is, how should customers view the spectrum release and will they need to invest in it, not to mention how will they invest in it.

"It would be nice now if the channel community were held in consultation with the OEMs and the majors," Berzack said. "We're the ones who get the 'Big Why' question from customers: 'Why do I need this?' 'Why do I need it now?' I don't feel comfortable giving an answer other than watch the white space. From an integrator's perspective, I've got nothing to sell or support here."

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What he'd need from the vendors, Berzack explained, is a plan on how to execute.

"I'd like to see the code put on all of my controllers and the footprint on how we're going to add this into the spectrum, and then give me the tools to do a proper site survey to allow for this, and troubleshooting enablement to address co-interference, both indoor and outdoor," he said.

In the short-term, said VARs, there is no solid answer.

"The easy answer is that this is a year, if not two years away. It's not even a blip on my radar other than to say, it's two years away, because there's no equipment yet," said Joe Bardwell, president and chief scientist at Connect 802, a San Ramon, Calif.-based solution provider. "While it's great that this frequency is being made available, there are still so many questions about what are the best ways to implement communications in that spectrum."

Bardwell likened the spectrum release to where the industry stood on WiMax technologies a decade ago. WiMax held great promise then, he said, but fast forward to 2010 and many of WiMax's strengths -- and the devices created to support those capabilities -- are still being determined.

Even if vendors do plant a stake in the ground for spectrum-ready products, it'll be at least a year and probably two before they hit the market, he said.

"Two years away is forever in the technology industry," Bardwell added. "We're really at the beginning of the applicable discussion on this."

Leveraging the released spectrum will require companies to make large investments in both the network infrastructure and the devices that will use it. It hasn't been clearly thought-out, said Alan Gould, president and CEO of Westlake Software, a Calabasas, Calif.-based solution provider, especially from a use-case perspective.

"We have Wi-Fi already, and we use it," Gould said. "Someone's got to build the infrastructure and the devices, and then, well, what do you do with it? Why do we need this?"

Some of the FCC release's biggest opponents have been broadcast television networks that fear constant interference with so much new data in the spectrum, and concerns persist about how the FCC will alleviate potential difficulty in areas, such as sports arenas, where wireless microphones are heavily used.

The FCC hasn't been fully clear on how it will prevent interference in the spectrum, though as part of the decision it has set aside two channels in the spectrum's lower portion for wireless microphones.

There's still much to be decided, VARs agreed, and influential bodies like the National Association of Broadcasters are now reviewing the order.

There might be a good play for niche devices, some solution providers suggested. Maybe it's an Apple TV purpose-built to run on the spectrum, Berzack said, or wireless products for gamers or other specific groups, Gould mentioned.

"I guess at some point you could make a cell service that's super cheap, say $10 a month, because it's constantly interrupted with interference," Gould said. "Maybe that becomes the poor man's cell service."

But he's not yet seeing any reason for generalized consumer or business use.

"Maybe we'll have this conversation in 10 years and I'll be wrong," he said. "Maybe it's the cart before the horse. But in this case, who needs the horse and what does the cart do?"