Wilmington Tests White Spaces' WiFi


Wilmington, N.C., which served as a test bed for the DTV transition as the first market to pull the plug on analog in September 2008, has become another proving ground.

City officials on Feb. 24 will officially take the wraps off a test of a municipal WiFi network -- it has been up and running for over a month -- using the so-called white spaces between those DTV channels. The mayor of the town, Bill Saffo, will give other mayors a look at the network, which Saffo thinks could be a big money-saver for the town.

The network is the handiwork of Spectrum Bridge and TV Band Service. The latter comprises private investors and is locally based. The former, which is supplying the database to make sure the network does not interfere with TV stations in Wilmington, may be familiar to followers of the white spaces issue. Spectrum Bridge has put its name in the hat to be the FCC's database service provider when it comes up with final certification procedures for operating unlicensed devices in the TV white spaces.

The "smart city" network, as they have coined it, will not be competing directly with the wireless carriers for subscribers, the companies said, but will be demonstrating uses such as energy monitoring, government services, and public safety. Those are the sorts of "national purposes" uses of broadband the FCC will be promoting in its National Broadband Plan, due to Congress next month.

According to Bill Seiz, test-bed manager for TV Band Service, they have been running wireless cameras for traffic and general surveillance in a park and on a highway. They are using the white spaces for water level and quality testing, and supplying public WiFi to a park and school. He said they are using the network as backhaul to provide wireless hotspots.

They have an 18-month experimental license from the FCC (TV Band Service holds the license), but said they expect to reevaluate the test in April, including doing some cost-benefit analysis and developing case studies.

The test also allows Spectrum Bridge to test its database and showcase it to the FCC and others. "We know that you learn a lot from real-world deployments," says Spectrum Bridge CMO Rick Rotondo, "how it interacts with the [devices] and can it keep you from interfering with other protected users." He says that so far there have been "no interference issues," either in this test or an earlier one in October in Virginia.

Saffo said his city spends about a million dollars a year to light ball fields. "Having the opportunity for our parks director to be able to monitor the fields so that when the last team plays their game, they can cut the lights off we think will save us a heck of a lot of money," he says, adding that the network offers a "tremendous opportunity to deliver WiFi to underserved parts of the community."

Given Wilmington's place in history as the birthplace of the DTV transition, so to speak, was he concerned about the possible interference to TV stations?

"Yes, there has always been that concern," Saffo said. "Obviously these people have been in our community a long time and provide a public service. So, whatever we are going to do in the experimental phase, we don't want to hurt them."