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Ofcom Mulls FM Frequency For Rural Broadband

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The white spaces around the FM radio frequency could be utilised to provide broadband to rural areas

Ofcom is considering the possible uses of the so called “radio dividend”, if the decision is made to switch off the analogue radio signal in the UK and turn to digital audio broadcasting (DAB).

At the moment of course, the UK is undergoing a nationwide switch off of the old analogue TV signal, with households across the country installing equipment to receive digital TV. This process is of course freeing up valuable spectrum.

But now Ofcom is considering the use for the airwaves that could be freed up if the UK Government opted to do the same for the radio, i.e. switch from analogue to digital radio.

FM Whitespaces

At the moment no decision has been made about switching off the analogue radio signal however, amid reports of poor uptake of DAB radios and services by the general population.

“This is the first time we are talking about the potential use of the FM capacity,” an Ofcom spokesman told eWEEK Europe UK. “There has been a lot of talk about the so called digital TV dividend, but this is the first time we are talking about the radio side of things.”

“We have closed our consultation about the regulatory issues regarding bringing white space devices to market,” the Ofcom spokesman said. He also confirmed that Ofcom is planning to issue a statement on this in the next few months.

There is a lot of effort going into identifying unoccupied radio waves called “white spaces” to transmit and receive wireless signals. White Space Devices are being designed to use a much wider range of frequencies, including the lower frequencies that have traditionally been reserved for TV and radio.

However the focus to date has been on developing a system that would allow these devices to work without interfering with other users of spectrum. This has focused on using the white spaces between digital TV channels.

However, in practice this technology could also work in the FM radio band.

Good Distance, Small Capacity

“The announcement yesterday was about the FM capacity and about the possible use of FM frequencies to deliver mobile broadband to rural areas” the Ofcom spokesman said. “For example a small hamlet of say ten to twenty houses somewhere in Scotland – this technology could provide the last connection to the national network.”

The Ofcom spokesman explained how the FM radio frequency is low down in the frequency table (87.5MHz to 108MHz).

“This is low down (the frequency table) and this means it is not good for big connections as it doesn’t carry much information,” said the Ofcom spokesman. “However because it is low frequency it does travel longer distances and has better inbuilding penetration. 2.6GHz on the other hand does carry more data, but doesn’t travel as far, and doesn’t have very good inbuilding penetration.

He said another possible application for the FM frequency would be for machine to machine communications, say for example medical monitoring applications.

“This is very early in the process and there is no deadline to switch off analogue radio signal,” stressed the Ofcom spokesman.

Limited Spectrum

“Spectrum is a resource that is in huge demand, fuelled by the recent explosion in smart phones and other wireless technologies,” said Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, speaking at the Radio Centre members’ conference on Wednesday.

“However there is only a limited amount of it to go around, which means we need to start thinking more creatively about how it is used. White Space Devices could offer the creative solution we are looking for,” he said.

“Our first aim has to be that any future use of the FM band is an efficient use of radio spectrum,” said Richards. “There must be certainty for smaller and community stations, that do not move across to DAB. These will continue to play their important role, and FM is an appropriate technology for the scale at which they operate.”

Last month it was revealed that a trial of white space radio in Cambridge by a consortium which includes Microsoft, BT and the BBC, will look at whether the technology is commercially viable for a range of applications, including the extension of broadband to rural areas.