FCC Makes White Spaces Free for All

Posted by: Olga Kharif on November 4, 2008

On Nov. 4, the Federal Communications Commission made perhaps the last significant decision of its term. The commissioners unanimously approved to allocate a swatch of wireless spectrum for public uses similar to Wi-Fi.

The controversial vote came after more than four years of public scrutiny, amidst opposition by some musicians, church leaders and television broadcasters, who have favored auctioning the airways, called white spaces, off to service providers. But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and his fellow commissioners sided with tech giants Google, Microsoft, Dell, Motorola and Philips Electronics North America in ruling that Americans would be better served if the spectrum were to be made available for free, public use. The white spaces will become available for use in February of 2009, when television broadcasters switch from analog to digital transmission.


That means that in one to two years, Americans may be using the spectrum with Wi-Fi-like devices to route videos throughout their homes, and to send pictures and messages to their neighbors bypassing commercial carriers’ networks. The spectrum’s ability to transmit data and calls at long distances and through walls would allow cheap community broadband networks to cover city neighborhoods and even entire towns, creating additional competition for broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon, and wireless carriers including AT&T. “The FCC has taken a significant step to usher in a new era of technology allowing for major investments in innovative wireless broadband, education, and government/enterprise applications to spur economic development,” Motorola co-CEO Greg Brown said in a statement.

To ensure that the new networks and devices won’t interfere with wireless microphones and TV stations, the FCC has set low power limits on equipment. The agency also mandated that devices use sensing and so-called geo-location – essentially, databases that show proximity to other users of the spectrum – to lower chances of glitches. Still, Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology for Harris Corp., calls the new rules “a recipe for disaster,” figuring that even these mandates won’t help avoid interference altogether.

After all, the FCC will also allow devices stripped of the geo-location capability to be used on these airwaves as well -- as long as these devices pass rigorous certification. "....the Commission will explore in a separate Notice of Inquiry whether higher-powered unlicensed operations might be permitted in TV white spaces in rural areas," according to an FCC press release.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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