Carlson Wireless: Using white space technology to bring connectivity to rural areas

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.

Remote and reliable

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 telecoms services.

Applications for rural connectivity

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 services.

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 zero.

Finding space in the market

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 last year.

"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," explains Carlson.

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 market.

A database partner is crucial for white space radio equipment as the database is what prevents devices from interfering with television channels.

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.

Higher bandwidth at a lower cost

Carlson Wireless’ 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 corner:

"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 characteristics."

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.

Key Facts: Carlson Wireless

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 signal.

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 users worldwide.

Partners: Carlson Wireless’ partners include Neul, Spectrum Bridge, Telcordia and Keenwire.

Services and solutions: Carlson Wireless’ services and solutions include wireless backhaul for broadband, TV white space, voting/simulcast systems, analog voice and VoIP.

Topics: Carlson Wireless, rural connectivity, white space, Jim Carlson