FCC Opens New Airwaves to the Public

Regulators, siding with techs like Google and Microsoft, rule that “white space” freed up by digital TV is best used for high-speed wireless hot spots

While the country was picking its next President on Nov. 4, the Federal Communications Commission federal communications commission was making its own momentous decision. The country’s top communications regulator unanimously voted to free up the biggest ever swath of airwaves to be used by the public for cheap high-speed wireless Internet access.

The vote came after more than six years of public scrutiny and decides the fate of airwaves that will be made available when television broadcasts switch over to digital signals from analog in February. A broad coalition of opponents, including lawmakers, musicians, and broadcasters, argued that free public use of the airwaves would interfere with TV broadcasts and wireless microphones. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this [amount of pressure] from broadcasters before,” says Steve Sharkey, senior director of regulatory and spectrum policy at Motorola (MOT), one of the companies that welcomed the FCC’s decision.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and fellow commissioners unanimously sided with tech giants Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Dell (DELL), and Philips Electronics North America (PHG) in ruling that Americans would be better served if the spectrum were made available for free public use. “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.

Whole-Neighborhood Hotspots

The new airwaves, known as white spaces, could be used to create wireless hot spots akin to those created by Wi-Fi technology that let users communicate wirelessly within homes and throughout neighborhoods. But unlike Wi-Fi zones, these airwaves will enable faster downloads of large data files, such as video clips and feature-length films, over larger distances and at a lower cost. In a blog, Google co-founder Larry Page compared the technology to “Wi-Fi on steroids,” adding: “I’ve always thought that there are a lot of really incredible things that engineers and entrepreneurs can do with this spectrum.”

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, bypassing and creating added competition with traditional providers of telecommunication services, such as Comcast (CMCSA), Verizon Communications (VZ), and AT&T (T). Motorola expects to cover 15 square miles with one access point using this spectrum and WiMax-like technology, which is currently used only on licensed spectrum. The setup would allow a new breed of carrier to rise up and provide wireless broadband in rural areas without having to dole out millions of dollars on spectrum. Motorola hopes to have new gear that works in white spaces within a year.

New White-Space Products

Some within the industry see white-space gear and services taking off as quickly as Wi-Fi, which debuted in 2000. Today some 1 billion Wi-Fi chips are shipped each year. “Now that the FCC has set the rules, I’m sure that we’ll see similar growth in products to take advantage of this spectrum,” Page wrote.

In the coming days, the FCC will issue a report outlining the rules and requirements for this spectrum. “A lot always depends on the details,” says Sharkey. To ensure that new networks and devices won’t interfere with wireless microphones and TV stations, the FCC has set low power limits on white-space equipment. The agency also mandated that devices use sensing and so-called geo-location capabilities—essentially, databases that show proximity to other users of the spectrum—to lessen chances of glitches. Still, Jay Adrick, vice-president of broadcast technology for Harris Corp. (HRS), calls the new rules “a recipe for disaster,” figuring that even these mandates won’t prevent interference altogether. One concern is that the FCC will offer a loophole for devices that don’t offer geo-location capability as long as they’ve passed FCC certification and tests.

Opponents will try to reverse the FCC’s decision once the new President comes into power. “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 life-saving emergency information,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice-president for the National Association of Broadcasters, in a statement. “Going forward, NAB and our allies will work with policymakers to ensure that consumers can access innovative broadband applications without jeopardizing interference-free TV.”

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