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Most of us are accustomed to receiving wireless phone and internet signals via WiFi connections. We wouldn’t expect to get the signals from a local TV broadcast station.

According to researchers at Rice University, though, you may soon be able to get your data and phone signals on the TV station’s UHF frequency.

By rules established long ago by the Federal Communications Commission, UHF spectrum is reserved for broadcast TV signals. Use of UHF frequencies for any other purpose has been strictly forbidden, because it might interfere with legacy TV broadcasts.

Some observers believe there should be room on the UHF spectrum for other applications. Edward Knightly, Rice University’s lead researcher in electronic technology, said, “Due to the popularity of cable, satellite, and internet TV, the UHF spectrum is one of the most underutilized portions of the wireless spectrum in the United States. That’s a bitter irony, because the demand for mobile data services is expected to grow tenfold in the next five years, and the UHF band is perfectly suited for wireless data.”

At 400 to 700 megahertz, the UHF band is the “beachfront property” of the electromagnetic spectrum. UHF signals can travel through the air for miles, and they can penetrate walls much more easily than the higher frequencies used for wireless routers can. Other frequencies can travel for long distances, and a few can penetrate walls easily. Only the UHF band, though, can do both.

TV broadcasters retain their exclusive access to the UHF band, even though the percentage of Americans getting their TV signals over-the-air has dropped almost into single digits, and despite exponential growth in demand for wireless services. The FCC allows data transmission over open UHF channels unclaimed by any broadcasters. Unclaimed channels are almost exclusively in rural areas, though, where demand for WiFI is weakest. In urban areas, where WiFi is most in demand, and where wireless spectrum is most needed, unclaimed UHF frequencies are almost nonexistent.

Researchers at Rice University claim to have found a solution. With Xu Zhang, a graduate student, Knightly designed a device called WATCH (WiFi in Active TV Channels). It transmits wireless data over UHF channels during active TV broadcasts over the same channels. The device monitors TV sets in the vicinity which are tuned to local UHF stations. With the device’s highly efficient signal-cancelling tool, the viewer can receive both video and data signals over the same channel, with neither one interfering with the other.

WATCH does not require changes to existing UHF broadcast transmitters. Instead, an advanced router in the user’s home or business is informed by nearby TV sets when they are tuned to a UHF channel. When a TV tunes into a UHF station, the WiFi system re-routes data transmission to an unused UHF frequency.

The WATCH device can be incorporated into smart remote control devices, or into the next generation of TV sets.

“Our tests showed that WATCH could provide at least six times more wireless data (than current methods)”, Knightly said. He added that the delay in tuning a WATCH-equipped TV set would be a small fraction of a second, almost imperceptible to the user.

“Allowing the UHF spectrum to be inefficiently used makes little sense today”, Knightly said, “and will make even less sense in the future… There are already more people in the United States who require mobile data services than there are people using broadcast-only TV.”

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