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03 September 2012
Carlson Wireless believes white space technology is the future hope for rural connectivity. Robert Anderson investigates why.
Almost three decades ago, one
man decided to make it his life mission to find a solution to
the lack of connectivity to remote and rural areas.
The journey that was to follow would bring his technology to
not just the rural areas of the US, but some of the most remote
places in the world, including the icy shores of Antarctica. It
has now led him to discover the potential of white space
technology, which he firmly believes can change the face of
rural connectivity forever.
Jim Carlson first embarked on his quest to develop, build and
market fixed-wireless telecommunications systems for remote and
rural users in 1986. He began by modifying two-way radio
equipment to provide a standard telephone system for residents
in his local neighbourhood, branding it the OptaPhone.
Gradually the OptaPhone Systems brand went nationwide,
providing the technology to support telephone services to low
density rural areas, including state parks, rural communities,
farms and Native American tribal areas. Jim’s
ambition, however, did not stop there.
Through the need to develop more sophisticated products and
secure additional funding, Carlson Electronics was incorporated
as Carlson Communications in 1990. This allowed Carlson to
develop products for entire villages in remote regions like
Alaska and expand its product base to regions across the world,
including Asia and Africa.
As Carlson Communications approached the turn of the century an
interested party emerged and, seeing this as an opportunity to
recapitalise and reinvent a new company, Jim sold the business
off and established Carlson Wireless in 1999.
The Trailblazer family of products, which were developed in
collaboration with Harris Semiconductor, were to be the core of
the new business, offering basic low cost telephone services to
high capacity data services, and a smooth migration from
analogue to digital technology.
While many telecoms companies
worldwide have struggled to find the revenues streams to
support the deployment of rural connectivity, Carlson Wireless
has developed a successful business through tapping into demand
for low cost solutions from a wide ranging customer base.
"It’s an area that’s been cast aside
by the general radio manufacturers so we’ve
developed a following there from both the government side in
state, forest and federal lands, to municipalities and
telephone companies that carry a lot of rural users," says Jim
Carlson, CEO of Carlson Wireless.
A large chunk of the company’s revenue comes from
the public safety industry, where the Trailblazer product has
been modified to emulate fixed-line service over radio. An
estimated 15 million people in the US now rely on
Carlson’s technology to connect emergency dispatch
centres in their area to mountain top sites.
Carlson Wireless has also enabled municipalities to offer their
own telecoms services, by providing a solution that is
typically only 10% of the cost of wired connectivity. This has
proven particularly popular in the rural areas of Texas, Alaska
and the rocky-mountain states, where local entities have
developed cooperatives to gather funding and administer
have been recognised across
several industry verticals, including oil and gas, mining,
transportation and energy and power. Carlson Wireless provides
these industries with emergency communication systems and a
means of connecting their remote sites.
While carrier interest in rural connectivity has ebbed and
flowed depending on broadband stimulus money, Carlson Wireless
has been able to maintain a consistent customer base with no
particular dependence on any one area.
This is not to say that carriers aren’t an
important part of Carlson’s revenue. Through its
solutions, the vendor has been able to offer the likes of
AT&T and Verizon large cost savings over wired deployments
in rural areas.
In 2004, for instance, AT&T needed to bring services to an
area in Austin, Nevada, but could not afford to dig and bury
wire. Through Carlson’s solutions the carrier was
able to provide approximately 75 customers with complete
connectivity at 5% to 10% of the cost to install wired
Across these different market segments, Carlson
Wireless’ equipment has been deployed in some of
the most remote locations in the world. This includes the
Marshall Islands, where it helped to support a long distance
learning programme and telemedicine services, and the Grand
Canyon, where it was required to establish connectivity without
disturbing the natural beauty of the area.
Perhaps most impressive of all, however, was the deployment of
Carlson’s Trailblazer telephone technology at the
US research station at Mcmurdo Bay in Antarctica, where
temperatures can reach over one hundred degrees below
Around four years ago, Carlson
and the team at Carlson Wireless were made aware of a
technology which could potentially resolve the issue of
connectivity in remote and rural areas. The switchover from
analogue television to digital services brought about the
possibility of using data to be located between channels in
what is known as white space.
The use of white space to support rural connectivity was
initially met with opposition from broadcasters but was
eventually pushed through by regulators in the US at the end of
"They drew it out as much as they could and it just took a
matter of continued pressure from regulators like the FCC and
Ofcom," says Carlson. "Now the FCC has changed a lot of the
rules so that use of TV white space by unlicensed third party
controlled radios is legal."
Among the many advantages of using white space frequency is
that it is non-line-of-sight, which is something that rural
broadband providers have huge pent up demand for. "That is
where the low hanging fruit in the business is. Providing a
high quality, robust product to the rural broadband folks,"
There is also the potential for white space to be used to
improve the strength of Wifi signals by between three to five
times. For municipalities trying to bring Wifi into their towns
and villages this will equate to a reduction in infrastructure
costs by up to a quarter, due to the smaller amount of cell
sites needed to provide coverage.
Since 2009, Carlson Wireless has been working with wireless
data base specialist Spectrum Bridge International, with the
companies reaching a full partnership agreement in June of this
year. Through successful joint trials between 2010 and 2011,
Carlson is now moving towards achieving certification for its
white space devices so that they can be sold on the open
A database partner is crucial for white space radio equipment
as the database is what prevents devices from interfering with
By positioning itself on the leading edge of the white space
industry, Carlson Wireless is aiming to offer an entire
ecosystem, which includes not just the radio platform but also
the antennas, cabling plan and lighting protection.
Carlson is driven by the huge untapped market he believes
Carlson Wireless can serve, as well as the genuine benefits
white space technology can provide users.
long-term target is to achieve higher bandwidth through white
space at a lower cost. The company’s existing
portfolio offers 16Mbps connectivity, but Carlson expects to
move towards speeds of 100Mbps.
In the next year, Carlson is also looking at reducing the cost
structure of the technology, which could push some products
below the $100 range. Carlson says that this will be crucial in
maintaining a good leadership position on the manufacturer side
of the business.
By drawing on its experience with Wifi technology, Carlson
believes that Carlson Wireless can reach the same price point
with white space products in just two to three years.
Carlson’s faith in white space technology could
pay off in a big way.
A recent report jointly produced by Real Wireless and Rethink
Technology Research predicts that the TV white space sector
will be worth as much as $1.2 billion by 2017 so long as there
is a regulatory environment in place to support it. Within
this, M2M applications are predicted to account for 52% of
white space device component sales, overtaking broadband.
Producing a low power M2M solution is one of the next steps for
Carlson, and the company is already looking into producing a
low power solution for rural wireless ISPs.
Carlson is also eyeing dynamic spectrum sharing opportunities
outside of white space. The US government’s
Presidential Council of Advisor’s on Science and
Technology has been continually looking to break more wireless
spectrum to users on an unlicensed basis for public use,
meaning new opportunities could be just around the
"We think the heart of our business can be migrated into these
different frequencies and we’d like to be the
market leader there from the product side, as well as educating
the industry and regulators of the benefits and performance
Through the advent of white space technology, Carlson may
finally fulfil his dream of bringing affordable and reliable
connectivity to the furthest flung corners of the globe.
History: Carlson Wireless was established in 1999 by
Jim Carlson. In 2009, the company launched its long-haul
product line, a hybrid of WiMAX technology, and the company has
recently been perfecting its RuralConnect product which
utilises TV white space to provide a superior Wifi
Customers: More than 20 million people in over
160 communities rely upon Carlson Wireless radios for their
communications. The company has customers in a variety of
sectors including broadband, public safety, energy and power,
oil and gas, industrial and enterprise, mining, transportation,
telephony and broadcast.
CEO: Jim Carlson is a telecoms entrepreneur,
and also serves as president and chief engineer of Carlson
Wireless. He has worked for the past 25 years to realise a
vision of fixed wireless communications for rural and remote
Partners: Carlson Wireless’
partners include Neul, Spectrum Bridge, Telcordia and
Services and solutions: Carlson
Wireless’ services and solutions include wireless
backhaul for broadband, TV white space, voting/simulcast
systems, analog voice and VoIP.