White Spaces/Illustration by Design Department White Spaces/spectrum waves Illustration by Design Department

In September 2008, Wilmington, N.C., became the first major market to switch from analog to digital TV. Now the city is continuing the grand tradition, this time serving as a digital guinea pig for the nation's first "smart city."

Cameras, sensors and other devices have been installed throughout New Hanover County as part of a test that began in February and will last for several months. These devices will transmit real-time data for the city to analyze. Information travels through a new wireless network that utilizes unused broadcast television spectrum, called "white spaces" created by 2008's digital TV conversion. Because digital TV uses spectrum more efficiently, it's possible to use the leftover spectrum to provide broadband services.

For instance, Wilmington will use wireless traffic cameras at intersections for the transportation department to monitor traffic, travel time and fuel consumption, and to support local law enforcement. With water-level sensors, officials also can monitor and manage wetland areas in the coastal city without a boat trip.

"The possibilities of this technology, in my opinion, are endless," said Mayor Bill Saffo, estimating that using the white spaces could save the city 80 to 90 percent of the cost of creating a wired network. "So many possibilities that I feel will help local governments deliver services much more effectively and efficiently. You can literally cover your entire city in Wi-Fi without having to lay all these wires."

In a dozen cities across the country, broadcast TV channels 14 through 20 have already been allocated for public safety use, and the FCC reserved channel 37 for medical devices, said John Chapin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and a consultant for TV Band Services. Authorized by the FCC under an experimental license, Wilmington's network is a test bed for locally based TV Band Service and Spectrum Bridge, a Florida-based white space database provider.

But the idea of using TV white spaces to create a web of wireless extension cords for local governments has its hang-ups. For one, the FCC hasn't yet released official rules for how municipalities can use white spaces. And contrary to networks owned by cable and telecom companies, white spaces are unlicensed. That means, in theory, anybody can hop on one of the white space frequencies -- a critical concern for broadcasters because, without regulation, devices can potentially cause interference with regular broadcast channels.

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Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer