If the TV band can be used for mobile, must auction it
With Microsoft promising prime minister Narendra Modi it will help provide low-cost internet connectivity to villages, attention has once again shifted to what are called ‘white spaces’ and the technology to use this efficiently. ‘White spaces’ are, literally, the spaces or gaps between various frequency bands used by television companies for broadcast, and they are there to ensure the signals do not interfere with one another. So, if Doordarshan is broadcasting one channel at 470-478 MHz—the band runs from 470 MHz to 585 MHz—and Sony is given the 480-488 band, the spectrum block of 478-480 MHz is a ‘white space’. Given this spectrum cannot normally be used, it makes good sense to allocate it to companies like Microsoft who have special technologies for this area since it will help connect millions of people in villages who have no access to the internet, even after the national optic fibre network is rolled out since that will connect only at the block level.
The government, however, needs to think a bit about this. For one, since using ‘white spaces’ means transmission will have to be done at a lower power and with very sharp filters to prevent interference—otherwise the signal will clash with the TV signal—this will reduce some of its gains as the signal will not travel as far. More important, as a recent IIT Mumbai study points out, with very few TV firms operating in this band, there isn’t as much ‘white space’ as one would imagine—around 80% of the spectrum in these bands is simply lying vacant. Even this wouldn’t matter since, if the spectrum can be used, why not use it? The question is whether the band can be used efficiently by someone else, and what kind of value the government could get for this. The World Radio Congress (WRC) that will be held next month is, as it happens, considering delineating this frequency as a mobile technology one. So, while it is true that no mobile equipment operates in this band at the moment, once the WRC delineates the band, developers will start working on it and, in a few years, broadband equipment for this band will be ready. And, given that lower frequency bands are more preferred due to their superior propagation qualities, chances are the government will get very good revenues for this when bid out. And once the band is delineated as a mobile band, telcos can beam their signals at the same power they do in other frequencies—since there will be no danger of interference once the bands are delineated—and provide connectivity to villages. Any decision on ‘white spaces’ will have to take all of this into account.