"Super Wi-Fi" to transform Singapore's wireless connectivity

Caption: 
The Singapore Island Country Club. Image courtesy of sicc.org.sg

To address Singapore’s need for more efficient wireless internet, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), together with an industry consortium called Singapore White Space Pilot Group (SWSPG), has launched several pilot projects utilizing a new technology known as TV White Spaces (TVWS), which taps into unused radio-frequency spectrum bands.

Radio-frequency spectrum is a natural resource through which technologies such as TV, 3G and Wi-Fi are deployed. Currently, each of these technologies is allocated a specific spectrum band. However, spectrum bands dedicated to wireless technologies are becoming scarce, prompting the need for the use of radio-frequency spectrum to be better optimized.

TVWS is a technology that better utilizes this resource by allowing unused bands that lie between TV channels to be allocated dynamically for broadband internet connectivity. Termed “Super Wi-Fi” by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), TVWS has been deployed on a small scale by organizations in the US and Canada because it consumes less power, can be deployed more cost effectively and allows for broader area coverage with fewer base stations needed for seamless connectivity.

In Singapore, research in TVWS has been ongoing since 2006, with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) leading the way. In 2011, IDA conducted a study on the commercial potential of TVWS. Shortly after, in 2012, first-in-Asia pilot projects were launched by the Singapore White Space Pilot Group (SWSPG), backed by IDA.

Founding members of SWSPG include the Institute for Infocomm Research (I²R), Microsoft, StarHub and Neul, and the group has now doubled its membership to a total of 18, adding National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), ST Electronics (Info-Comm Systems) and Grid Communications to its list of members.

TVWS is particularly relevant to Singapore because it will improve penetration in low-access areas; while 3G uses 2.1GHz, TVWS will use 700MHz. Furthermore, connectivity is already saturated and several bands of locally empty spectrum bands cannot be utilized because of overlaps with Indonesia and Malaysia, where they are still used for analog TV.

In addition to broadband coverage, potential applications for TVWS lie not only within the consumer broadband internet space but also in marine communications, supporting infrastructure in remote areas, disaster recovery systems and in the domain of the “internet of things”.

Tracy Hopkins, Corporate VP of Neul cited several specific potential applications for TVWS, especially in the arena of M2M and sensor communication. According to Hopkins, in rural areas, “smart agriculture” will involve flood monitoring, sunlight detection, fertilizer level detection and other automated sensing in disaster management situations. “Applications will depend on the economy you live in,” she commented.

Pete Henderson, CEO of South Africa’s Indigo Telecom — also a member of SWSPG — remarked that TVWS has proven to be of wide-ranging benefit in digital inclusion initiatives in Africa: “I’ve personally seen people’s lives change in Kenya; like a mist you can drop connectivity into a village”. He believes that it will be of similar benefit in the developing parts of South-east Asia, while Singapore can serve as the hub at the center of a wheel while “spokes of opportunity reach out to the neighboring countries”.

Indigo and Microsoft have teamed up to introduce TVWS technology in Kenya with support of the Kenyan government. Pilots began in February in remote parts of Kenya, where solar-powered base stations along with TVWS technology power connectivity. The first rollouts will see internet being used for education, healthcare and government service delivery.

New Initiatives

In a June announcement, SWSPG unveiled four new commercial pilots:

Gardens by the Bay: A TVWS trial allows visitors to one of Singapore’s latest tourist attractions to use Wi-Fi more reliably, without the need for the Gardens to deploy intrusive infrastructure within its boundaries and thus avoid the eyesore of wired connections. Within the Gardens, the Supertree Grove, Meadow and Canopy have already been setup to provide TVWS-enabled Wi-Fi to tourists.

Sentosa: A pilot will commence on the island to provide visitors with Wi-Fi access and to enable CCTV cameras to communicate over the network at three sites: the Siloso Beach, Palawan Beach and Merlion Complex. The trial, which went live at the end of last month, will involve the participation of several TVWS providers to provide seamless connectivity.

Housing & Development Board (HDB): Also centered around CCTV enablement, deployment of TVWS will allow for better machine-to-machine communication and surveillance, and for law-enforcement authorities to obtain real-time video feeds from HDB buildings. This will eliminate the need to store video data locally and the need to deploy manpower to retrieve it regularly, while giving access to several relevant agencies to share the video data and perform real-time analytics.

Eurokars Group: Focused on increasing the reach of its IT network, the car dealership will use TVWS-enabled Wi-Fi to cover a larger area while adding value-added services to its portfolio such as vehicle fleet tracking and customer arrival and service management. Microsoft Research will power the Eurokars database.

Country Club Connectivity

TVWS technology for Wi-Fi is already being used at Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) as a part of a pilot initiated last year. The 266-hectare golf club — the country’s largest — had problems with plugging connectivity gaps on its premises; members would complain of lack of coverage on their devices while golfing. In spite of four fixed-line services, up to 6km apart, the SICC had several blind spots, and at one time even deployed a balloon with wireless equipment to enhance coverage, without significant results.

“Every one of our trees is numbered, so cutting them down to set up more base stations was not an option, and the cost to wire the premises up was prohibitive,” commented Sylvan Braberry, CEO at SICC.

He now reports perceptible change in feedback from members, and the TVWS IT network at SICC now boasts speeds of 4Mbps at club locations and 10Mbps spread out over the terminals on the golf course. The SICC is also implementing “smart bins” that let control stations know when they are full and ready to be emptied and “smart water technology” that detects moisture in the grass with the help of TVWS technology.

Microsoft’s Technology Policy Group Director Paul Garnett remarked: “What we learn from Singapore will have global impact — new technologies, along with appropriate regulatory models and business models are all now available.” He added that TVWS is now on the cusp of wider commercialization.

In conjunction with SWSPG’s announcement of the new round of pilots in Singapore, 24 organizations worldwide, representing four continents, have come together to form the Digital Spectrum Alliance (DSA), an industry alliance focused on increasing dynamic access to unused radio frequencies while addressing growing wireless data and digital divide challenges.

 

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