Cities Seek Access To Unused Airwaves

fromWHQR

Just when you thought you'd heard the last of the national switch to digital TV, along comes another technical term to further clutter your brain: white spaces. They are the unused airwaves between licensed TV channels — and cities want to access them for everything from transmitting data from traffic and security cameras, to providing broadband access. A test is going on now in Wilmington, N.C.

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When broadcasters across the nation flipped their signals from analog to digital last summer, they freed up a lot of airwave space. That's because the new digital signals take up less room. In Wilmington, North Carolina, engineers are testing possible uses for all this newly available spectrum.

Catherine Welch with member station WHQR has that story.

CATHERINE WELCH: I don't know about you, but once the country switched from analog to digital television, I thought we were done with it. Well, it turns out we're not. The switch opened up white spaces.

Mr. JOHN CHAPIN (Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The white spaces are a large amount of spectrum in a very desirable part of the ban.

WELCH: In between, let's say your local NBC and ABC stations, is a white space. Wireless microphones currently transmit on unused channels in the television spectrum that are part of the white spaces. The rest of the real estate is just sitting there.

MIT scientist John Chapin(ph) consults for TV Band Services, a private company looking to cash in on white spaces.

Mr. CHAPIN: There's over 100 megahertz available in a place like Wilmington. That's a lot of spectrum.

WELCH: The Federal Communications Commission awarded TV Band Services an 18-month license to see if it could move data through white spaces without disrupting local television channels. If it can, then cities and towns could use white spaces to transmit video from traffic or security cameras. The unused spectrum could also be used to bring the Internet to poor or rural communities. Law enforcement and the medical community also want a piece of the action to monitor parolees or to transmit medical data.

Those possibilities hinge right now on what's happening at a non-descript retention pond in Wilmington, North Carolina. Chapin heads through the grass towards what looks like any other large mud puddle, except for the metal pole sticking out of the water with an antenna and radio transmitter-receiver attached at the top.

Mr. CHAPIN: This is a water level sensor. It's a standard commercial product. It's a pipe that goes down into the water and sticks up above, and there's a little bit of electronics at the top of it that just measures the height of the water by shining a light beam down on it.

WELCH: Then it transmits that information to a computer not far away. A setup like this could help Wilmington effectively monitor its wetlands, says Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

Mayor BILL SAFFO (Wilmington, North Carolina): Right now, when we're monitoring water quality, we're sending a person out in a boat or a canoe to do those readings. Now we can have real-time information sent to us every five minutes.

WELCH: It doesn't end with water quality data. I'm leaning against a park bathroom where there's been a lot of crime. A security camera is pointed right at me. The video of me talking to you is traveling across television white spaces, back to an office where scientist John Chapin has set up a couple of computers displaying video for this camera, another camera monitoring traffic and the sensor recording water levels at the retention pond.

Mr. CHAPIN: Those kinds of applications get more efficient when you can reach out to the devices, read them in real time, control them in real time. People have known that for a long time. They haven't been able to afford to put out the communications networks to support it.

WELCH: It would cost a fortune for cities to wire the traffic and security cameras and hook up environmental monitors, but thanks to white spaces, all of that data can be reeled in using items found at Best Buy.

Mr. CHAPIN: There's no need for a NASA launch control room for this stuff. The radios are standard commercial radios. The control is just a standard laptop.

WELCH: Wilmington isn't the only community tapping into white spaces. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Claudeville(ph), Virginia, with its 470 residents, was too small and too hilly to bother wiring for high-speed Internet.

Before white spaces arrived, Internet access was limited to one home and a couple of businesses. Now, local official Roger Hayden(ph) says he expects nearly everyone in Patrick County to have high-speed Internet by the end of the year. This is one way the FCC is proposing to get broadband to rural communities.

Mr. ROGER HAYDEN: Sitting here in a rural environment, I have the same opportunity as anyone in the world or the big cities. I have the same advantage if I have high-speed Internet.

WELCH: Before Claudeville, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, can permanently utilize white spaces, the FCC needs to finalize rules for using them, and its national broadband plan calls for shoring up those rules by the end of the year.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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