Digital TV could be the catalyst for big opportunity in wireless applications.

Thought HD was just about football games so lifelike you hurt for days afterward and TV personalities terrified every blemish will be amplified?

The U.S. has mandated the end of analogue over-the-air broadcasting in February 2009. We don’t have a deadline in Canada – Industry Canada is content to let the market decide –but there will be a transition, and we should watch carefully how the cards fall in the U.S.

In general, analogue TV signals take up more bandwidth than digital. High-definition sports and action is the exception, says Guy Mitchell, Industry Canada’s director of spectrum and radio policy, taking up about the same 6 MHz range as analogue. When TV goes digital, those channels can be compressed into a smaller range, freeing up bandwidth. Mitchell says when the switch is complete, it will free up the bandwidth now taken up by channels 52 to 69.

(There is no Channel 37. If anybody can tell me why, I’d be grateful. But I digress.)

That 108 MHz of bandwidth will come up for re-allocation, eventually in Canada, but certainly in 2009 in the U.S. Four channels will be reserved for public safety. As for the rest, there are two options: auction it, or leave it unlicensed.

There’s a huge incentive for the FCC to auction off all the bandwidth. The Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum (ATPF) estimates the FCC could draw as much as $50 billion by auctioning the space. But there’s good reason to leave at least some of the spectrum unlicensed.

Wi-Fi routers and their ilk have to use spectrum in the 2.4 GHz range. The freed up TV channels would be in the hundreds of megahertz range. ATPF points out it takes a lot more power to push the higher-frequency radio signals, thus they have shorter range and trouble penetrating walls. Down in the TV area of the spectrum, signals go farther with less power. Picture Wi-Fi towers with the range of a TV station …

An exaggeration, but still. There’s opportunity for innovation there, and it’s been recognized by a group of tech companies. The White Spaces coalition includes Microsoft, Intel, Google, Dell and others. “White space” is unused TV spectrum frequency, and these companies want to be able to use unlicensed devices there. The group is pushing for approval of devices even farther down the spectrum, where active TV stations would remain – the devices proposed would be able to shift to empty spectrum to avoid interfering with TV signals.

With its 50 billion reasons to auction off all spectrum it can free up, you wouldn’t think the FCC would be giving any serious thought to leaving any unlicensed. FCC chair Kevin Martin says wireless is the future of broadband, but he’s not talking about leaving spectrum unsold; he’s encouraging possible players to bid for space when gavel time comes up.

How it plays out in the States will give us a pretty good read on what will happen here. The decisions are made in consultation with the public and industry, Mitchell says. But it’s clear the U.S. decision will influence what happens hear. Harmonization with your biggest, closest neighbour makes sense. Like the U.S., Canada has reserved four channels four public safety use. Like the U.S., Canada has no Channel 37.


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