FCC set to approve use of unlicensed TV white spaces for broadband networks

Handing broadcasters a significant loss, the FCC is set to approve new rules this week for the free use of unlicensed TV white spaces for public broadband use. The action is expected to the open the door to high-power Wi-Fi networks that can cover entire cities or towns rather than small hot spots.

The potentially stronger, faster networks — set to be approved at the FCC’s Sept. 23 meeting with significant commission member support — will extend broadband signals to bypassed rural areas and allow for smart electric grids, remote health monitoring and, for consumers, wireless Internet coverage without dead zones. At least that’s the theory.

“This will be a platform for innovators and entrepreneurs,” Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman told the “New York Times.” “There is every chance of this leading to the development of one or more billion-dollar industries.”

Broadcasters fear the open, unlicensed use of white spaces will interfere with their digital television transmissions. Theater owners, sports arenas and churches, which make extensive use of wireless microphones, also fear having their signals cancelled out due to interference from an unlicensed device (like a wireless router). Exactly how the FCC will address those fears will not be known until the new rules are announced on Sept. 23.

The broadcasters and wireless microphone users have filed a lawsuit to stop the FCC’s use of white spaces technology. What is known is that the FCC proposal would reserve two television channels in each local market for wireless microphones.

The white spaces initiative began when unused bands of spectrum were generated by the conversion of television signals from analog to digital. Because digital transmission uses a smaller slice of spectrum, more white space was freed up around each broadcast signal. It is those white spaces that the FCC is now seeking to put to use.

The new spectrum is particularly attractive because television signals are low-frequency waves, meaning they can travel farther, go more easily through walls, trees and other obstructions, and provide more reliable connections.

As with any developing technology, uncertainties remain. Urban areas, which have the most demand for the new airwaves, have less of them available because more local television stations are using available bands. Also, by making the airwaves available free, the FCC is bypassing the possibility of using them to generate revenue, either through auctions or user fees.

High-tech companies are ecstatic about the FCC’s pending action. “I’m absolutely confident that there will be a huge range of applications that we cannot yet predict,” said Dan Reed, corporate vice president for technology policy and strategy at Microsoft.

“No one knew what would happen when Wi-Fi came about, and now we have over 1 billion Wi-Fi chips in every laptop in circulation,” Rick Whitt, telecommunication counsel for Google, told the “Washington Post.” “The potential is so vast that we can really leap ahead on what we are doing today.”

The fact that new applications can use unlicensed airwaves is important as an economic development tool, said Rebecca Arbogast, a managing director and telecommunications analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. Few companies have the billions of dollars required to buy spectrum that is periodically auctioned off by the FCC, she noted, but unlicensed spectrum can attract cash-poor, startup companies.

The deployment of television-band white spaces represents a rarely used model for the FCC, which historically has operated under more of a command-and-control model, in which it tells licensees what they can use their spectrum for.

“The last time we did this, no one knew what would happen,” Genachowski said. But the result — wireless computer networking and other consumer applications — has transformed the economy.

While issues of interference and other conflicts inevitably will arise and will be have to be addressed by the commission, he said, “we are confident that the benefits of moving forward are so significant that we should act now.”