Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on November 5, 2008
The FCC’s decision to open up more spectrum for mobile wireless, reported yesterday by my colleague Olga Kharif, is a big step forward. But it’s going to be some time before products emerge to take advantage of “white spaces.” I think the 12 to 18 months predicted by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is probably wildly optimistic.
The FCC voted unanimously on Nov. 4 to permit low-power devices to operate on the television channels that go unused in every market. The first impediment is the likelihood that the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which fiercely opposed the move, will go to court or seek Congressional action—or most likely, both—to overturn the FCC action. In a statement issued after the vote, NAB Executive Vice-President Dennis Wharton said: “Fortunately, today’s vote is just the beginning of a fight on behalf of the 110 million households that rely on television for news, entertainment, and lifesaving emergency information. Going forward, NAB and our allies will work with policymakers to ensure that consumers can access innovative broadband applications without jeopardizing interference-free TV.” Based on the history of these things, there isn’t a lot of doubt about what “just the beginning of the fight” means. The broadcasters may not prevail in the end, but a lawsuit or legislative fight will discourage investment in white space technologies until the dust settles.
Second, there is the not inconsiderable matter of the technical challenges facing engineers seeking to build white space products. To deal with the broadcasters' vastly overstated but still legitimate concerns that these devices may interfere with over-the-air television, the FCC imposed two requirements. One is that white space devices must check a geographical database to find what channels are occupied at their location. And the devices' radios must listen to find out what is operating on a channel before they begin transmitting and back off if they sense interference with licensed broadcasts. Advocated of white space use convinced the FCC that such radios can be built, but the fact is that they do not currently exist, at least not in a form that can economically be installed in consumer products.
I think the freeing of the white space spectrum will ultimately be a big boost to mobile wireless. Just don't expect to find a white space-capable handheld in you Christmas stocking this year, or next, or maybe in 2010.