- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In a contentious move aimed at increasing the availability of wireless broadband in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday voted to free up the “white space” spectrum for unlicensed use.

The fate of the airwaves in question had been hotly contested, pitting Silicon Valley firms and consumer groups against broadcasters, wireless microphone manufacturers and broadway producers.

The white spaces refer to vacant slices of spectrum in between broadcast television channels. Technology giants including Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. have been lobbying the FCC to open the airwaves, a decision they say will spur innovation as manufacturers create new devices that will operate on an unencumbered basis, like Wi-Fi service.

But the plan encountered formidable opposition from entities like the National Association of Broadcasters and Shure Inc., to name a couple, which argued that wireless devices operating in the spaces would interfere with digital TV signals and events like football games and theater performances, which rely on the use of wireless microphones.

Dozens of lawmakers, public interest groups, think tanks and others, including the public on a Google petition, have been involved on both sides of the issue as the lobbying battle boiled over in recent weeks.

The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology tested several iterations of prototype devices to assess possible interference, eventually concluding that sufficient safeguards can enable devices to identify vacant channels and avoid those in use.

Technology heavyweights applauded Tuesday’s unanimous FCC vote to free up the spectrum.

“This is a clear victory for Internet users and anyone who wants good wireless communications,” Google co-founder Larry Page said in a blog posting. “We will soon have ‘Wi-Fi on steroids.’”

Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, likewise welcomed the vote.

“Today´s vote also makes possible new ways to connect people and devices to each other and to Internet-based services, helping boost American productivity. And it will create opportunities for American companies to remain at the forefront of technological innovation worldwide, helping to create jobs and economic growth,” he said.

To guard against interference, the commission’s rules will require devices to include geolocation services for detecting available channels, as well as access to an online database of incumbent TV stations at a given location. Devices will require FCC certification to ensure they meet the agency’s requirements.

“Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they may have only dreamed about before,” said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican. “I fully expect that everything from enhanced home broadband networks to intelligent peer-to-peer devices and even small communications networks will come into being in TV ‘white spaces.’”

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the decision.

“The commission chose a path that imperils American’s television reception in order to satisfy the ‘free’ spectrum demands of Google and Microsoft,” said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television Inc., adding that the FCC “ignored more than 50 letters from members of Congress, asking for public comment.”

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