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White Space Gold Rush

The FCC has created the next big technology gold rush, literally out of thin air. Chip and mobile technology mavens are the first folks who will strike the new mother load, but others will follow.

The FCC has created the next big technology gold rush, literally out of thin air. Chip and mobile technology mavens are the first folks who will strike the new mother load, but others will follow.

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In between existing television channels are buffers collectively called “white space”. The FCC established these buffers in the Bad Old Days™ because back then television broadcast equipment was less than precise. A broadcast signal could drift a little up or down the frequency spectrum causing recliner-bound fathers to order their children to adjust dials, knobs and rabbit ears (if you do not know what “rabbit ears” were, then you are too young to be reading this). Basically white space buffers kept channel 2 from clobbering channel 3.

But with television broadcasts going digital this February and the unused white space spectrum being valuable, the FCC has opened it up for “unlicensed” use. Unlicensed spectrum devices do not require getting FCC approval for every user. Your home wi-fi, your kids walkie-talkies, your BlueTooth toys are all unlicensed gear. Unlike all these gizmos, signals for devices in the white space 700MHz band can travel for miles and go through walls, which is why your old television worked indoors even if your kids couldn’t tune it properly.

The FFC’s idea is to open white space for unlicensed data devices. Being unlicensed, there is little restriction for what this space can be used. As long as the device follows FCC mandated rules for not interfering with other devices, anything goes. Think of it as wi-fi without the limitations of wi-fi. Think of a long distance wi-fi connection that runs between 10-20 megabits a second (slower than home/corporate wi-fi but significantly faster than 3G mobile data). Think of it as a huge arena where devices will freely communicate with other devices in an all but unregulated environment.

Think that this market is 100% untapped.

Like the Internet itself, profit in the white space derives from its unregulated nature. When the cost of entry is low and the variety of uses nearly endless, potential and profitability are mind boggling. Chip makers will be obvious early winners, and I expect Intel will quietly shift some of their WiMax investments to WhiteSpaceMax in 2009. Cisco no doubt has engineers soldering away on breadboards today. Since Google pushed hard for the FCC to allow white space exploitation, they likely have an advertising revenue backend already mapped.

These are the obvious profiteers. The yet identified winners fall into two categories: companies that understand new uses of data and companies who redefine “devices”. We have to look at these in inverse order.

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What is a “device”? An automobile is a device. So is a toaster. I can think of about 100 useful ideas on how a car with free long distance wi-fi could benefit from data. So far I’m drawing a blank on how toasters would benefit from having fresh data feeds (maybe my brain needs some toasted carbohydrates to restart the idea factory). Creative minds who view “devices” as an abstract, and who can leverage the wealth of data available via the Internet, going to make some money.

Let’s take a really simple idea like GPSs and gasoline. If a GPS maker augmented their product to mine the data at GasBuddy.com, the device could at the press of a button find the cheapest gasoline nearby, guide the driver there, then prompt him to enter-in what they paid and thus update the GasBuddy database. When gas goes back to $4 a gallon, this will be a much sought after addition (note to Garmin, TomTom and everyone else in the GPS business — considered this copyrighted and I expect royalty checks when you implement this).

But GPS toys are existing devices. What previously unimagined gizmo could be mass manufactured and download/upload data? The answer may lie in what data is useful in motion when using a cell phone is not practical. Or better still, when a cell phone is present but passive. Imagine an eye-level billboard that sense that you are standing in front of it, and from some white space signal knows who you are (is told your cell phone number). Based on a database in the cloud, it could tailor an advertisement to you and the location where you are at (“Hungry? Try the Peking Cat restaurant two block east on Main Street. Much better than the Vietnamese food you ordered online last week from Wok my Dog.”)

Combinations of existing devices may suddenly become useful by their ability upstream data. Convinced your kid is abusing his driving privileges? Why not add a camera in the car, tied to the speedometer and GPS system that streams audio/video/location/velocity data back to your PC, and let’s you VoIP him in real time? “Billy, get your hands off your girlfriend and back on the wheel …. NOW!”

White space is a big and very empty world. But it is a largely unregulated world and one ready for profiteering.

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