White Space Alliance moves closer with WiFAR, plays buzzword bingo

The White Space Alliance’s (WSA) new WiFAR protocol has taken a step closer to launch this week, with alliance members AmeriSys and Saankyha Labs publishing a test vector format for WiFAR – a long-range wireless protocol looking to take advantage of the unutilized TV white space spectrum.

The WSA is promising that WiFAR will be able to support a range of emerging applications, including machine-to-machine communications, IoT, smart grid deployment and industrial automation. However, the announcement reads a little like buzzword bingo – trying to draw in as many potential developers as possible, but thankfully avoiding the AI and machine-learning claims that litter so many announcements these days.

By announcing the test specification for WiFAR, WSA partners will now have the opportunity to develop IoT-based applications, and start to consider potential use cases. However, given that all the projects currently associated with the alliance are focused on providing broadband services this is early days for IoT applications.

But there is still strong demand for unlicensed spectrum, as it can often reduce the cost of an IoT deployment – by avoiding the monthly or annual fees that a network provider would charge. The trade-off here is that an adopter must invest in creating their own network, but WiFAR is at least positioning itself as a choice for developers, looking perhaps for a wireless backhaul technology more suited to moving large volumes.

The WSA says it could deliver up to 22Mbps to 29Mbps over long distances, up to 30km from the base station. The group hopes the technology will be used to deliver rural broadband and bridge the digital divide in underserved communities. For non-broadband purposes, the WSA believes that WiFAR could serve IoT applications, likely in niche deployments – not national roll-outs.

WiFAR could be used in combination with other unlicensed options, such as LoRa, acting as that backhaul option. The LoRa Alliance has been successful in encouraging a number of major network operators to deploy its technology, as well as in niche localized projects. Rural deployments might justify the use of a wireless technology like WiFAR, instead of paying for an LTE link or to install a wired connection.

TV white space (TVWS) has not had an easy ride so far. The WSA has so far seen slow regulatory acceptance progress in many non-US markets. TV white space is a prime area of new license-exempt services, especially for extending low cost broadband to rural users, but setting up large projects in the spectrum is complicated – owing to the regulation, which differs according to each country.

The WSA was formed in 2012 and has since been working on a specification based on the broad 802.22 family specs, first approved in 2011. The aim of the alliance is to promote the development, deployment and use of standards-based products and services as a means of providing broadband capabilities via white space spectrum. The driving force behind the alliance appears to be Saankhya Labs, a company which acts as a vendor of WiFAR base stations, chipsets, and chip modules.

The WSA is confident that once WiFAR reaches scale it can deliver internet access for the cost of less than $10 a month per household. The equipment is cost-effective at this price because the technology allows base stations to be installed near ground level, not on towers – helping to keep the network installation costs down.