FCC Clears the Path for White-Space Networks

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday morning to approve the final rules for tapping into unused broadcast TV spectrum, known as white spaces, for new wireless broadband networks and devices.

The vote brings to a close a proceeding that the FCC formally initiated in November 2008. Supporters say that the spectrum has the potential to bring broadband service to rural and remote regions outside of current providers’ coverage areas, while also unleashing a flood of new wireless devices.

“Today we open a new platform for American innovation,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the announcement.”Today’s order marks the commission’s first significant release of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years.”

The movement to make white-space spectrum available for wireless broadband had drawn support from an array of advocacy groups and high-tech firms, including Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Dell (NYSE: DELL) and Motorola (NYSE: MOT).

“For several years now, the tech industry, the public interest community and entrepreneurs have been clamoring for the green light to begin innovating and building new products for these airwaves on an unlicensed basis,” Rick Whitt, Google’s telecom and media counsel, wrote in a blog post. “Today’s order finally sets the stage for the next generation of wireless technologies to emerge, and is an important victory for Internet users across the country.”

Look, up in the sky, it’s Super Wi-Fi

White-space spectrum is an appealing option for wireless broadband service for its propagation characteristics, which enable it to travel long distances and penetrate obstacles with a strong, reliable signal. Genachowski referred to the technology as “super Wi-Fi” at this morning’s meeting, recalling the tagline “Wi-Fi on steroids” popularized by Google co-founder Larry Page, who has made white spaces something of a personal cause.

But the FCC’s white-space proceeding has hardly been without controversy. TV broadcasters, for instance, staged a pitched lobbying campaign in opposition to the 2008 order, warning that white-space devices would interfere with television transmissions. In the weeks leading up to today’s vote, broadcasters had urged the commission to enact meaningful safeguards against signal interference.

“NAB’s overriding goal in this proceeding has been to ensure America’s continued interference-free access to high quality news, entertainment and sports provided by free and local television stations,” Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing the details of today’s ruling.”

The final white-space order is expected to be released sometime Thursday afternoon, but commission officials outlined some of the interference provisions at today’s meeting.

The order will lay out the mechanism for setting up a nationwide database that will house information about the usage of broadcast spectrum in each market. White-space devices will be required to come equipped with geo-location capabilities and check in with the database every 24 hours to ensure that they are operating in a vacant spectrum channel.

In a victory for white-space proponents, the order will not require devices to include spectrum-sensing technology as an additional interference protection, a condition supporters had argued would be unnecessary in light of the geolocation mandate.

“Geolocation technology can effectively protect existing users,” Paula Boyd, Microsoft’s regulatory affairs counsel, wrote in a blog post on the eve of the FCC’s ruling. “Requiring that sensing technology also be built into a device will increase cost and slow the introduction of the white spaces technology without improvements in interference protections.”

In addition to the broadcasters’ objections, the white-space movement had drawn concerns from Broadway performing groups and other organizations that rely on wireless microphones, which operate in the same spectrum band.

Today’s FCC order requires two channels in each market to be set aside for the use of wireless microphones, a carve-out that commission officials said should be ample for nearly all microphone operators.

In the rare instance that those channels might be insufficient, such as a blockbuster theater production or sporting event, microphone operators will be permitted to apply to the FCC for extra channel space in the white-space database to protect against interference, but will be required to demonstrate that they are making maximum use of the available vacant capacity.

The next step for the FCC will be to establish the white-space database and promulgate the rules governing the devices that will have to access it. Commission officials hope to get the database up and running this year, with a new crop of devices hitting the market next year.

The commission has alreadygranted experimental licenses for white-space networks in a handful of communities as a proof of concept.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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