FCC "White Spaces" Vote Will Increase Wireless Broadband Access

While tens of millions of Americans were waiting in line to vote on November 4, 2008, the Federal Communications Commission was making its own historic decision. In a unanimous vote, the FCC approved public access to the unused part of the television band known as white spaces.

Excerpted from "The Fight Over Broadcasting's 'White Space'"
By Joshua Breitbart, People's Production House

Analog television signals require a substantial buffer between channels to prevent interference. With the transition to more efficient digital broadcasting in February, a lot of spectrum will become available. The issue of what to do with this newfound digital treasure had been the subject of a nearly five-year review at the FCC, including 18 months of engineering tests. The 5-to-0 vote on the issue belies the contentiousness of the measure.

"White spaces is an issue that pits those who have spectrum access and want to keep it for themselves against those who want spectrum to be used and serve other purposes as well," explained Timothy Karr of Free Press.

The primary "other purpose" will be faster, cheaper wireless broadband access - faster because the frequencies in the television band are more robust than other wireless signals and cheaper because users will not have to pay license fees. The spectrum is unlicensed.

Public interest organizations, like Free Press and People's Production House (where the author works), supported the FCC's move, as do with tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Motorola. Corporate television broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, and wireless microphone companies, like Shure, lobbied, joined by their friends in the entertainment industry, lobbied against public access.

The FCC's Ruling: What it Means for Rural and Urban Consumers

Despite any shortcomings, the FCC's ruling paves the way for a new generation of portable, wireless devices. Initially, their range will be limited.

The primary beneficiaries of this order will be people living in rural parts of the country. Some 62 percent of households in rural areas lack meaningful access to the Internet, many because they have no available broadband connection. These same areas have the fewest television signals and the most available white space. Fixed wireless devices using the white spaces will be a quick, cheap and effective way to connect rural Americans to the Internet.

Those living in urban centers stands to gain less. Proponents of white space devices who hoped this order would allow them to replace expensive, unreliable, and slow cell phones have a long wait ahead of them.

This technology remains in its very early stages. Once it advances and devices become cheaper, and more and more devices include white space antennas, we will start to see the really big effects. A portable device that can listen for available signals could function as a roaming wireless router, passing along whatever traffic happens to be in the area, the way a router on the Internet does with traffic that comes along on the wires. So, if your mobile phone signal is spotty because you can't connect to the phone tower, you could connect to a device between you and the tower that would then route your signal on to the tower. The more devices, the more robust the infrastructure.

Small boxes on cars could provide the same function, passing along signals from nearby buildings or portable handsets, turning traffic into infrastructure that goes where it's needed - in the city center during the workday, then back to residential areas in the evening. And it doesn't have to be a voice call, of course; it could be a high-speed Internet signal, even video potentially.

From a consumer perspective, white space devices will probably start out fairly expensive with limited functionality. Over time, though, especially if the FCC increases the maximum signal strength of the devices and begins certifying devices that rely solely on spectrum sensing, the potential usefulness of white space technology will go through the roof.

What's next?

Despite the length of the FCC order, it is not the last word on the subject. The commission will issue a Notice of Inquiry to examine the potential of higher-powered transmissions in rural areas.

Meanwhile, the television broadcasters will certainly seek to thwart any further expansion of unlicensed access to the white spaces. They may even try to roll back this order through action in Congress or the courts. All they need to win is delay, since that keeps the spectrum in their hands.

Access to the white spaces is only a start. It is a powerful platform for innovation, but it is only a platform. We need devices and applications that utilize this wireless treasure. Perhaps most importantly, we need to set our imaginations free so we can envision the future that we want - and use this new technology to help make it a reality.

Joshua Breitbart is policy director for People's Production House.