FCC Opens Up TV White Spaces

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's notion of "WiFi on Steroids" got a big shot in the keister Thursday following approval of a plan to free up digital TV spectrum for unlicensed wireless broadband services.

The unanimous vote paves the way for the unleashing of vacant airwaves between TV channels, also called "white spaces," for mobile wireless devices and services. In the FCC's view, use of this unlicensed spectrum plays into its aims to enable access to broadband services in unserved or underserved parts of the US, while also sparking new technology investment. The FCC originally adopted the white spaces proposal in November 2008. (See FCC Votes In 'White Spaces' Order and FCC Rocks the 'White Spaces' Vote .)

"We know what the first major application will be: super WiFi," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said, noting that means wireless Internet access with "longer range, faster speeds, and more reliable connections."

The approval is good news for Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), and others that are developing plans for devices and services that live in the unlicensed white spaces bands. Google, for example, has just partnered with Spectrum Bridge Inc. to deploy a broadband network using TV white spaces for a hospital in Logan, Ohio. That facility, Hocking Valley Community Hospital, is using the technology to manage its outdoor video surveillance system.

Interference concerns
The use of unlicensed white spaces for broadband has its share of critics who contend the practice can interfere with incumbent applications, including wireless microphones and digital cable TV services. (See Cable Worried About 'White Space' Tech.)

The FCC order, which opens spectrum for unlicensed devices below 900MHz and in the 3GHz band, attempts to remedy this issue, but may not go far enough to everyone's liking.

The FCC order does set aside two reserve channels for wireless microphones so they can operate without worrying about butting up against services that tap into white spaces spectrum.

However, the order removed a suggested requirement that devices using the unlicensed TV bands support automated sensing technology that can detect the signals of TV stations and wireless mics. Instead, those incumbent users will have to protect themselves from possible interference by registering in a public database, with those requests subject to approval.

Still, the auto-sensing component is not completely off the table.

"Although we have eliminated the requirement that TV band devices that incorporate geo-location and database access must listen and adjust for other signals, I am pleased that we emphasize the importance of the continued development of this sensing capability," FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said.

Thursday's order may not sit well with traditional mobile carriers, which are investing in their own wireless broadband services, and have argued that white spaces spectrum should be licensed and subject to auction.

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), for example, said it was "gratified" that the FCC was looking into licensing some of that spectrum in rural areas for backhaul purposes, but the carrier still has issues.

"Backhaul drives up costs, and while the possibility of opening up licensed wireless backhaul presents opportunities in some of the country's most rural white spaces spectrum, this is a far cry from the comprehensive backhaul reform necessary to drive down exorbitant backhaul costs, which ultimately constrain services for consumers," Sprint said.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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