Précis - Ofcom has published a consultation on a framework for the use of television White Space Devices ("WSDs").  The current consultation builds on earlier consultations, technical development and the 2011 Ofcom statement on Implementing Geolocation: Summary of consultation responses and next steps.

What?  White space refers to the parts of the spectrum that are not used by an existing licensee (i) at all times or (ii) at all locations.  The term also includes those parts of the spectrum that have traditionally not been licensed to anyone and used as buffers between licensed parts to prevent interference.  It is proposed that WSDs would make use of these "white spaces" in the spectrum but subject to the requirements that they do not cause interference to any licensed user of the spectrum and the process for making use of white space spectrum is managed.  As this implies, it would require WSDs to be location aware and to have access to information (for example a database) which would permit them to make efficient use of under-used parts of the spectrum.  This current consultation is aimed at devices that will use parts of the UHF TV band and currently used by Digital Terrestrial Television ("DTT") and programme making and special events ("PMSE").

So what?  A number of frequency bands have been made available in the 470Mhz to 790Mhz range by the switch off of analogue TV and Ofcom would like to make more of this spectrum available to industry.  The potential uses are expected to include the expansion of broadband services in rural locations, the provision of fixed or mobile hot-spot coverage (similar to how existing WiFi technology is used), in-home broadband services, in-home multimedia distributions (effectively as a replacement for data cables in the home) and machine-to-machine (M2M) interfaces for applications such as sensors, remote monitoring and remote/smart metering.  However, the scope and variety of uses is expected to develop further once the framework for WSDs is brought into effect.  This aligns with Ofcom's long term aim to make more efficient use of the available spectrum so as to plan for expected growth in wireless data requirements.

So what does the framework propose?

Ofcom's proposal is for WSDs to operate under an exemption from licensing under the Wireless Telegraphy Act (the "Act").  Ofcom is empowered to make exemption regulations under section 8(3) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. To this end it has developed and put out for consultation a process for implementing this within the UK by means of a Statutory Instrument ("SI") to bring in the necessary exemption legislation, an Interface Requirement ("IR") and a Voluntary National Specification ("VNS").  The purpose of this consultation is to obtain comments and views on how the process will be managed and implemented before the document is referred to the European Commission ("EC") and then, if there is no objection within three months of submission by other Member states, implemented into domestic legislation.

What form will the framework take?

At the core of any WSD system will be a white spectrum database ("WSDB").  The WSDB will be a geolocational database which will hold information as to the frequency and spectral power information that a white space devices may operate at for a given location without causing interference to any incumbent licensed device in that area, for example DTT.  There will be two types of white space devices: master devices (usually in the form of a small base station or router that communicates with the WSDB to determine what frequency it should be operating on) and slave devices (often in the form of consumer premises equipment, dongles or terminal equipment that communicates with the master device and operates on whatever frequency the master device is operating on).

The consultation document proposes that any WSDB should have provision for the master/slave devices to be transportable and/or fixed, have the ability for the master-slave pair to be shut down if there is any interference and automatic shut down of the slave device if contact is lost with the master device.  Any WSDB is not expected to be solely developed by Ofcom and it may be the case that it is industry which takes the lead.  Ofcom does however stipulate that a WSDB should require secure access and be resilient to malicious changes to the information given the criticality of the function that it is expected to perform.  Ofcom is of the opinion that given the complexity of calculating the maximum power at which any WSDs should operate so as not to cause interference, that particular function should perhaps be undertaken by Ofcom in a consistent manner.  How this would happen in practice has yet to be addressed and is something that should be addressed in this consultation.

What does the example SI do?

The example SI published in this consultation states that the use of WSDs will be exempt for licensing under the Act provided that the WSDs operate in the range 470Mhz to 790Mhz and do not cause interference to other licensed devices.  The regulation then goes on to describe the terms that would apply to the WSDs in order for the exemption to apply.

What does the IR do?

The IR sets out the technical requirements of the SI.  The purpose of the IR is two-fold: it is used to notify the EC of the technical regulations that the UK proposes to adopt and identifies those elements of the SI which will give effect to compliance with the core elements of the R&TTE Directive.

What does the VNS do?

The VNS is a voluntary standard which provides guidance for manufacturers on what tests manufacturers may be suitable to demonstrate compliance with the Radio and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment Directive until such time as the harmonised standard currently being developed by ETSI are brought into effect and supersede the VNS.

What are the consultation timescales?

The consultation process started on 22 November 2012 and it will end at 5pm on 10 January 2013.  Responses are welcomed from the telecommunications industry and interested parties generally.

The outcome of this consultation will be used to review and update the form of the SI, IR and VNS that will be sent to the EC and the other Member states sometime in the first quarter of 2013.  Submission to the EC will trigger a three month standstill period and, assuming no detailed opinions have been received from other Member States, followed by a one month statutory consultation on the draft SI before the SI can be implemented into domestic legislation.  Potentially this could result in WSDs becoming operationally active towards the end of 2013.

For further reading, the Ofcom consultation paper is available on the Ofcom website