As usual, there are a number of high-profile topics dominating mobile industry news. Barely a day passes without discussion of the woes of Nokia and RIM, while the continued rollout of LTE networks (and the enabling spectrum auction process) is also ever-present. But there are also a number of interesting topics rumbling underneath, one of which – white space technology – came to the surface this week, with news that Microsoft is one member of a high-profile group exploring the potential of this in the UK.

Undoubtedly, demand for white-space technology is driven by one of the mobile industry truisms: usage of mobile data services is increasing sharply, placing pressure on existing infrastructure. Driven not only by the penetration of smartphones, but by the growth of other connected devices such as tablets, ebook readers and games terminals, the demand for wireless data is on the up. And when it comes to the mobile networks, operators (obviously) have monetisation in mind, meaning services can be extremely costly for heavy users.

In this light, the appeal of an alternative is obvious, especially when it is positioned in the way that white space has been – like WiFi (which equates to free or low cost in many minds), but working over a wider area.  With this solution also being perceived as a way to offer services beyond the realm of the mobile operator, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is generating a lot of traction within the wider ICT industry – for example Microsoft and Google, and the BBC and BSB from the media realm, have all been linked with  pilots.

But it does not take the memory of an elephant to remember other, alternative technologies which have been heavily hyped, but which failed to generate headway. For a long time, WiMAX was positioned as a potential disruptor, and in Intel it certainly had a backer with the right credentials – the integration of WiFi into laptop computers undoubtedly provided a fillip for this technology, and Intel was well placed to drive the same with WiMAX. Qualcomm’s FLO was touted as an effective way to deliver multimedia content to mobile devices, but failed to generate traction in the market. And there are many, many other examples.

It is another industry truism that the best technology does not always win the war. It is not the technical strengths or weaknesses that define the value of a technology, it is the ability to create a full ecosystem, with a business model that generates enough profit, which really matters. Infrastructure needs to be provided, and operated. Customer equipment needs to be manufactured, and supplied to end users, at an attractive price. Ultimately, the bills have to be paid. This will need to be addressed before white space can become a commercial proposition.

But there are also the technical issues to overcome first. White space mobile broadband will operate using spectrum close to terrestrial broadcast systems, and interference will undoubtedly be a key issue. While in the UK trials the BBC is supporting the pilot, there is little doubt which side this stakeholder’s bread is buttered – if there is any potential risk to its broadcast business, it will swiftly be on the phone to Ofcom. “Squatting” on someone else’s frequencies, even with permission, makes the white space proponents the weaker voice when compared to their licensed counterparts.

Again using the UK as an example, when the issue of interference between 800MHz LTE and terrestrial broadcast services was raised, the watchdog said that it was up to the mobile operators to ensure that the media users are not disturbed. As a result, white space technology is likely to face any number of constraints, including in frequency use and power levels, which could seriously hamper its capacity and coverage promises, making it appear less attractive than at first glance.

So, white space technology: business models to be defined, and technical challenges to be overcome. But with momentum on its side – even if it is not coming from the mobile operators – it is clearly too early to call a final result.

Steve Costello

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members