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Ofcom wants FM radio for white space devices

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Ofcom has proposed using the FM analogue spectrum that will be freed up after the UK's digital radio switchover to power a range of innovative new 'white space' devices.

In November last year, Ofcom launched a consultation on plans to free up the spare spectrum between TV channels, known as 'white spaces', to enable a range of uses, including mobile broadband in hard-to-reach rural areas and a range of connected products.

The technology works by identifying unoccupied radio waves to transmit and receive wireless signals. Compared with other forms of wireless technology, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, white space devices can utilise a much wider range of frequencies, with possible uses including digital cameras that automatically transmit photos after they have been taken.

Speaking yesterday at the Radio Centre members' conference, Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said that the analogue FM radio signal could also be used for white space technology.

"Spectrum is a resource that is in huge demand, fuelled by the recent explosion in smartphones and other wireless technologies," he said.

"However there is only a limited amount of it to go around, which means we need to start thinking more creatively about how it is used. White space devices could offer the creative solution we are looking for."

The government has loosely committed for the UK to switch to digital radio in 2015, when the analogue FM signal would be switched off. All the larger national stations would transfer to digital, leaving just a few smaller stations remaining on the FM band, which Ofcom expects will free up as much as 50% of the capacity currently used to deliver FM radio.

Richards said that using the spare capacity for white space devices would help the radio industry by preventing it from being "backfilled with new commercial and pirate radio stations".

"Our first aim has to be that any future use of the FM band is an efficient use of radio spectrum. There must be certainty for smaller and community stations, that do not move across to DAB. These will continue to play their important role, and FM is an appropriate technology for the scale at which they operate," he said.

"This seems to us to be a potentially creative solution that would not only use spectrum to its full capacity, but would also work alongside existing smaller FM radio stations. This could be done without causing interference and work in harmony with the aim of switchover from a radio perspective."

A consortium, including BT, Sky, the BBC and Microsoft, recently announced plans to run an innovative trial of the provision of broadband using the 'white spaces' between TV channels.

Ofcom thinks that white space applications will work similarly to Wi-Fi by using a wireless router to send and receive information to other wireless devices. However, the key difference would be that a white space router would first need to consult a geolocation database, set up by Ofcom, in order for it not to interfere with other uses, such as TV signals or other wireless devices.

The media regulator expects to publish a statement concluding its thinking in the area of white space technology shortly.

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