Digital TV transition opens space in wireless spectrum

For Dan Misener, the most interesting part of the transition from analog TV signals is that it leaves a gaping chunk of unused wireless spectrum.

This week, Canadian television goes digital, as broadcasters switch off analog television transmission to many parts of the country. It's a historic change that could affect hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

But for me, the most interesting part of this digital transition has little to do with watching TV.

Rather, I'm left wondering, What exactly are we going to do with the huge gaping chunk of unused wireless spectrum that's left behind when the analog signals shut down?

You see, for decades, analog television signals made use of some pretty primo real estate on the electromagnetic spectrum. The technical properties of over-the-air television meant that signals could travel long distances and penetrate buildings -- valuable qualities for a broadcast medium. Those same properties make the soon-to-be vacant frequencies highly desirable. When Industry Canada starts auctioning off these frequencies sometime in the next year or so, many anticipate a spectral land grab.

So, who wants these frequencies? According to Gregory Taylor, a post-doctoral researcher at Ryerson University, the answer is in your pocket. "Cell phone operators are the key groups in this auction who are bidding large amounts for spectrum access." Controlling access to wireless frequencies is especially important, he says, "in the era of the smartphone and video streaming. [Consumers] want mobile internet, and that requires spectrum."

But it's not just cell phone operators who are interested. Taylor says tech companies want a piece of the pie, too. "Google and others seem to recognize that there's some real potential for this down the road. We're really talking about preparation for technology which might not exist as of yet."

Licensing public frequencies to private companies is just one aspect of all this. There's also been much talk of using unlicensed white space (the frequencies between existing television channels) to provide long-range wireless broadband. Some people call this "Super WiFi" or "WiFi on steroids," and with a range of approximately 100 kilometres, it could be used to deliver fast internet service to rural areas, avoiding costs associated with the last mile.

"It's been approved in the United States in some areas. So you have things like entire university campuses and some rural areas that have access to broadband in a wireless way." In fact, just this week, Industry Canada released a long-awaited consultation paper on the use of white spaces in Canada.

The technology to drive super WiFi is real. It exists today. But will we ever see it?

"We don't know," says Taylor. Much depends on how Industry Canada chooses to handle white space and the upcoming wireless spectrum auction. And while the words "wireless spectrum auction" may cause some eyes to glaze over in a policy-induced haze, Taylor says that average Canadians should pay attention.

"This will impact people at a very day-to-day level. If you care about access in your community, and if you care about ensuring that we have a strong level of competition in the wireless sector in Canada, all of these issues are being played out right now."

I'll keep my eyes (and bunny ears) open.