FCC Unanimously Approves White Spaces

By Kenneth Corbin

November 05, 2008

The FCC moves to open access to unused spectrum for new wireless devices similar to Wi-Fi.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to move forward with a controversial plan to make the unused spectrum that sits between TV stations available to a new class of wireless broadband networks.

By a 5-0 vote, the commissioners approved the plan over vigorous opposition from television broadcasters, Broadway theater performers, and other groups who warned that the new devices would interfere with TV transmissions and wireless microphones.

Google, Microsoft, and other major technology firms have been pushing to free the spectrum for two years, arguing that it would set in motion a new suite of high-speed Internet services. The cause also drew support from a spate of advocacy groups, which organized under the Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA) to trumpet white spaces as a path to low-cost, ubiquitous broadband access.

Networks built on white spaces would operate similarly to Wi-Fi, though the broadcast spectrum has stronger propagation characteristics that enable signals to penetrate thick walls and travel long distances. Those qualities have made it an appealing solution for bringing broadband service to rural parts of the country that are underserved by incumbent providers. "This spectrum is very valuable for providing the next generation of wireless broadband services," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said. "Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they only dreamed about before."

The commission approved the use of the white-space spectrum for location-aware devices that can tap into a nationwide database of all TV channels to ensure that they avoided occupied spectrum. The order stopped short of approving devices that ran only on a spectrum-sensing technology, though they said that such devices could make it to market after further testing.

The FCC conducted two rounds of field testing to gauge the threat of interference. Last month, the commission's engineers released a report concluding that white-space devices could operate without interfering with television broadcasts if they were equipped with appropriate technical safeguards.

The engineers said the testing demonstrated a "proof of concept" As a result, Martin introduced the draft order to proceed with opening the spectrum. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded immediately with an emergency request to delay the vote for a period of public comment.

What followed was a media and lobbying blitz that saw heated exchanges and mutual accusations between the WIA and NAB. Each drummed up letters of support from lawmakers, calling on the FCC to either proceed with the vote or delay it.

Ultimately, the commissioners sided with the chairman, agreeing that the testing was thorough and that all sides had been heard.

"The commission has been studying this for a long time and done a series of testing. Indeed, a lot of the testing that we did was public and we allowed anyone to come forward and participate and watch the testing that was occurring," Martin told reporters this morning.

"I think in the end, the commission has to balance the competing interests and determine how we try to make sure that there's not going to be harmful interference to broadcasters but at the same time make sure that we're utilizing what's a very valuable national asset."

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.

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