Microsoft Corp. has turned its headquarters campus into a single wireless hot spot, giving workers in scores of buildings and aboard a shuttle bus a steady Web link to test a potential $4 billion market.
Google Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Motorola Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. are also making plans for a new era of wireless video and data traffic using vacant airwaves previously reserved for television. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission plans to vote Sept. 23 on releasing the spectrum for nationwide use.
“We’re going to do something big here,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an interview. “This is very high- quality spectrum.”
The radio waves travel in gaps between television channels known as white spaces, and like TV signals they carry long distances and through building walls. Uses may include easier Internet connections, remote monitoring of industrial systems such as power plants and taking over some mobile-phone traffic to ease sluggishness for users of devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.
Thousands of routers for the established wireless technology known as Wi-Fi would be needed to equal the coverage Microsoft provides at its Redmond, Washington, campus through its white-space system, said Dan Reed, a corporate vice president for the world’s largest software company.
The U.S. will be the first nation to deploy the technology, which is being examined by the United Kingdom, France and Brazil, Genachowski said. The action is the most significant release of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years, and will help fulfill the Obama administration’s pledge to almost double the airwaves available for new wireless devices, he said.
‘New, Huge Industry’
“The goal here is to spur the development of another new, huge industry,” Genachowski said. Wi-Fi has become a $4 billion industry annually in the U.S., and the new service that he calls “super Wi-Fi” may become as large, he said.
White-space applications may generate $3.9 billion to $7.3 billion in economic value each year, according to a September 2009 study funded by Microsoft and written by Richard Thanki, a London-based analyst with Perspective Associates.
New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two biggest media markets with multiple TV stations, may have few vacant channels for the devices, according to an FCC fact sheet. Most markets have five or more empty channels.
Users of the white-space airwaves won’t need an FCC license, leaving them free to create devices for applications yet to be developed, Genachowski said.
The FCC in 2008 approved white-space use over objections of television broadcasters who said their signals might be disrupted. The agency left final rules on technical standards for later, and these are the matters coming to a vote next week.
The National Association of Broadcasters “hopes that the agency adopts final ‘white spaces’ rules that preserve the ability of local and network broadcasters to deliver interference-free television,” Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group, said in an e-mailed statement.
Options before the agency to guard against interference include requiring white-space devices to check with a database listing what channels are available locally. If a channel is occupied, the device must choose another frequency.
Microsoft showed off what it calls its White-Fi network when Genachowski visited Redmond last month. The network uses two transmitters to cover most of the campus, Christina Pearson, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mailed statement. The campus is 500 acres (202 hectares), according to a company filing with securities regulators.
“That’s an illustration of the power and beauty” of the technology, Reed said in an interview.
Signals over white-space airwaves travel at least three times the distance of Wi-Fi, covering an area nine times as large with “superior penetration” of buildings, according to a filing Microsoft submitted to the agency.
Cisco, Nokia, Motorola
Microsoft is working with manufacturers to design equipment requirements “as quickly as possible” through the standard-setting group Wi-Fi Alliance, Reed said. Cisco Systems Inc., Nokia OYJ and Motorola are also members.
In coastal North Carolina, prototype white-space devices remotely test water quality in a tidal creek and let officials monitor a park using a wireless camera, said Bill Saffo, mayor of Wilmington.
“The spectrum can definitely reduce costs and help us deliver those services at a cheaper rate,” Saffo said in an interview. “There’s probably a million-and-one applications.”