Find a Way to Use ‘White Space’ Spectrum

Spectrum “white space” is an incredibly valuable public resource that could provide wireless broadband access for as little as $10 a month. For that reason alone we must find a way to work out any technical flaws that might block its quick deployment for unlicensed use.

The overheated white space slugfest between broadcasters and high-tech computing companies is a diversion. Any technical problems can be fixed. The real issue is whether the white space will be freed for use by its rightful owners.


Vacant space in TV Channels 5-51 is perfectly suited for cheap WiFi and other unlicensed wireless services. Failure to take advantage of this publicly owned resource would not only be an enormous waste, but eventually allow the spectrum to be tied up for far less noble purposes.

NAB lobbyists would have you believe that the use of wireless devices in these vacant slices of spectrum would cause interference and threaten the transition to terrestrial digital broadcasting. Sports leagues think the devices might cause static on wireless microphones and coaches’ headsets.

Perhaps they are right about the interference, at least at this early stage of the technology. But what doesn’t work now can be made to work. Sensors can detect which frequencies in an area have no usable TV signals and a device’s transmission can be limited to prevent it from interfering with occupied channels.

To me, the central arrogance in this dispute is that television broadcasters assume that they somehow serve a higher public interest than the use of white space spectrum by the public itself. Oh, please! This is an outrageous assertion coming from an industry that has refused to even agree to obligations of public service in return for free use of the public’s airwaves.

We’ve heard the broadcaster’s side of this issue repeatedly. But what about the other side? A lot has been written, but I thought the alternative view was best stated by Ben Scott, policy director of FreePress, a nonpartisan group advocating an open, independent media.


The NAB, Scott said, is engaged in “a campaign of misinformation” to persuade Congress and regulators to ignore the huge potential of unused public airwaves. “In some communities, more than three-quarters of these ‘white spaces’ are vacant,” he said. “The social and economic benefits of utilizing these unused airwaves far outweigh the shortsighted fears of the broadcast industry.”

By using “false assumptions and twisted facts,” Scott said, the NAB is attempting to collapse the entire white spaces debate into a single test of prototype devices at the FCC.

Scott, as well as the high-tech companies advocating the unlicensed use of white space, argues that the FCC’s initial tests actually demonstrated the viability of the smart sensing technology to reduce interference. The tests are being used as a bogeyman in the public lobbying campaign.

With well-designed devices, proper testing, and certification, the FCC could ensure that mobile wireless devices won’t interfere with broadcast stations and other types of transmission. All that’s required is the motivation.

It is dangerous to allow technical obstacles to cloud the big picture—which is setting important policy as to how a valuable public resource is to be used. To its credit, the FCC wants to allow the use of the white space spectrum for unlicensed Internet access. Such a policy would create a low-cost alternative to cable and telco broadband providers.

Virtually every market in the country, especially those in rural areas, has unoccupied spectrum space on the DTV roadmap. One analysis (by the FreePress and New America Foundation) found that in Juneau, Alaska, as much as 74 percent of the broadcast spectrum will be empty; more than 70 percent will be vacant in Columbia, S.C.; and more than 72 percent in Charleston, W. Va.


In more congested areas, there is still ample space. Dallas-Ft. Worth will have more than 40 percent vacant; Boston will have more than 38 percent; Seattle more than 52 percent; and San Francisco more than 37 percent.

This spectrum would work well for a wide range of portable wireless devices, including laptops, phones, portable routers, etc., allowing them to achieve longer range and to better penetrate buildings and other structures. It is an ideal opportunity to ease spectrum access costs for public use and to close in on ending the digital divide.

In my opinion, the broadcasters are crying wolf over the white space issue. They should join with the White Spaces Coalition to make the technology work. Surely, the combined resources of deep-pocketed companies such as Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Philips can eliminate any interference problems.

If there’s a will—and that’s a big if—there’s a way. Those who truly care about public service shouldn’t want it any other way.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.