Wireless Connectivity Through White Space

After five years in the making, faster, stronger, wireless connectivity will soon be here - thanks to an enterprising team at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA)

What are the wireless technologies that allow us to connect to the Internet? You may think of Wi-Fi and 4G, but have you heard of TV White Space (TVWS)?

Wireless communications, such as TV, 4G and Wi-Fi, use radio-frequency spectrum – a limited natural resource that cannot be manufactured. Already heavily loaded, Singapore’s spectrum use is further constrained by our geographical location: our close proximity to neighbouring countries means several of our spectrum bands overlap with theirs and cannot be used.

So as early as 2009, the IDA started exploring utilising TVWS, which are unused channels in the TV broadcast bands (see diagram), to complement existing wireless broadband communications. TVWS can extend the range of wireless broadband, providing better connectivity and penetrative power at lower costs.

TVWS has great potential to contribute to Singapore’s Smart Nation vision. For example, it can enable indoor and outdoor sensors to “communicate” wirelessly to control street lighting, manage energy consumption, monitor the environment, and even direct traffic.

Imagining possibilities

To develop and demonstrate the potential of TVWS, an industry consortium, the Singapore White Space Pilot Group, was set up with the IDA’s support.

In one pilot project, the Singapore Island Country Club, which had struggled to provide members with reliable connectivity owing to its vast premises, used TVWS to improve its wireless network. TVWSenabled sensors were also installed in “smart” rubbish bins to alert cleaners when they are full.

The National University of Singapore leveraged TVWS’ range and ability to penetrate walls to track air-conditioning usage. A smart grid connected by TVWS allows the university to charge hostel residents on a pay-per-use model.

“These trials allowed different parties to serve as advocates for TVWS and validate the feasibility of deploying the technology in Singapore,” says Mr Henry Foo, Senior Manager, Resource Management and Standards, who led a team to draw up a regulatory framework for TVWS.

Overcoming limitations

To optimise limited spectrum resources, the IDA adopted the Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) technique to allocate TVWS spectrum channels.

To understand how DSA works, think of the TVWS spectrum as parking lots, says Mr Raymond Lee, Director, Resource Management and Standards.

No two cars can be in one lot simultaneously. Using a geo-location database, it alerts TVWS devices and back-end users such as service providers when there is available spectrum at its nearby location – the way a driver is alerted of an available parking lot when another car leaves it.

Another innovation is the adoption of a “light-touch policy” for TVWS. The IDA is drawing on the success of Wi-Fi, used widely here without problems despite a no-licence policy. This means that organisations are exempt from license fees when using TVWS, and need not go through lengthy application processes.

“By lowering the barriers and costs of utilising spectrum, the industry now has more opportunities and flexibility to create more innovative products and services,” Ms Aileen Chia, the IDA’s Assistant Chief Executive and Deputy Director-General (Telecoms and Post), says.

Mr Foo adds: “Smaller market players (such as SMEs and consumers) that could not afford spectrum licensing fees can look at how they can harness [TVWS].”

In the Philippines, for example, nonprofit organisations tap TVWS’s extended reach (16 times more than Wi-Fi) to deliver broadband to remote areas.


Hearing from industry players

The IDA’s regulations for TVWS kicked off in November 2014, making Singapore one of the first few countries to implement a framework for TVWS use.

Before its implementation, the IDA had held a public consultation in 2013 to gauge market interest and views. It received 21 responses from market players including MediaCorp, Microsoft, StarHub and A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research.

A major concern expressed was that if TVWS became available to everyone without a licence, it might result in a lack of guaranteed spectrum availability. The IDA addressed this by setting aside two high-priority channels within the TVWS spectrum. This allows TVWS network operators to offer services that require greater certainty in spectrum availability.

Going back to his parking lot analogy, Mr Lee explains: “This system is not unlike a priority parking programme. While all lots are free to use, organisations can opt to pay extra so they can receive a guaranteed spot.”

Other concerns included competition in the mobile broadband applications market. Mobile operators, who pay for licensed spectrum, could be disadvantaged with new players being exempt from licence fees and having fewer regulatory obligations.

“Different organisations have different interests and points of view. Naturally, they would not always agree with one another,” Mr Foo says. In response, the IDA fine-tuned the framework to strike a balance between protecting existing services and enabling innovation.

Mr Foo and his team will continue to refine the policy further. “We’ll learn from this experience. If anything, the team has demonstrated that regulators need to be bolder and more confident when it comes to innovation,” he says.

    Mar 18, 2015
    He Ruiming
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