Free the whitespace

Surfing at the beach

One of the great things about the migration to digital broadcasting platforms is what gets left behind. As the VHF band is cleared of television and radio signals, previously unavailable (or incredibly scarce – and therefore expensive) spectrum becomes freed up.

That empty spectrum, or ‘whitespace’ as it’s becoming known, has been attracting a lot of attention recently. Bill Gates is having a say, Google are putting their hands up. It’s a turning point in communications history.

Now, contrary to popular belief, there are two (rather than just one) possible uses for that spectrum that would be of enormous social and cultural use. The first would be to reallocate it for community broadcasting, low power FM, access television and other political and grassroots media. The second would be wifi. Gigabytes-fast, ubiquitous and, to the public, potentially free wifi.

You could have a long argument about which of those two uses are the principle democratising forces. Frankly, either would be a superb result in my book. Because both ways, there is more speech, more access to speech and more availability for citizens to make media.

The migration to digital television and DAB radio has not been, in my opinion, a phenomenal success. There are all sorts of exciting things around picture quality and enhancement of services, but in the end these things are more flavours of the same thing — with audio and picture fidelity improvements that are not the solution to any genuinely experienced problem. And you can keep that bloody red button.

But the freeing of the whitespace makes for a genuinely promising and potentially hugely rewarding opportunity for the connectedness, wellbeing and productivity of the communities covered by those vacated stretches of spectrum. One gives local music exposure and a much greater chance of hearing marginalised voices and arts. The other allows for mobile working, connectivity and access to technology – a serious dent in the digital divide (at least at a national level).

Community media – or ubiquitous wifi. There’s no wrong answer here.

Now let’s wait and see the politicians screw it up.

4 thoughts on “Free the whitespace

  1. Dom Terrace says:

    Your final line in this post is the best. haha.

  2. David says:

    Surely in an age where time shifted media is getting more and more popular the option of ubiquitous wifi would be preferable. If everybody was connected with fast WiFi the growth of internet radio, video podcasts, etc would fill the gap in community media.

  3. Andrew says:

    Andrew, an interesting blog which I felt compelled to bookmark. It would be nice to see the spectrum released from the tyranny of commercial radio.

    And speaking of bookmarking – I use Ma.gnolia in preference to Delicious so I clicked the Ma.gnolia link on your new sharing page. Everything worked fine except no description is carried over.

    Is this deliberate or is it a limitation of the sharing mechanism or something else?

    No big.

  4. Personally, I think the whitespace is going to go to whoever pays most – that’s what usually happens. Given the two alternatives you present here, Andrew, I’d probably guess WiFi.

    I don’t think it’ll do much good though. The Internet hasn’t really changed the rules of play – those with the most money get the most exposure. The trick these days isn’t to make stuff avialable – as you well know – it’s to get people to listen to what you are saying. The result I fear, given what has happened with the Internet so far, is that the freed up whitespace is just going to fill up with more junk – just like the net has and still is.