FCC Stages Coup for Wireless Innovation

The Federal Communications Commission — the government agency that generally concerns itself with policing wardrobe malfunctions and the like — took an enormous step into the 21st Century yesterday as its five commissioners voted unanimously to open previously restricted areas of the wireless spectrum for public use.

The areas of the wireless spectrum involved in the decision are buffer zones — traditionally known as "white space" — intended to protect against interference in over-the-air television broadcasts. Under the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, all over-the-air analog television broadcasts must end by February 17, 2009 — at that time, the FCC will reallocate the spectrum for other uses, including the 700 MHz spectrum auctioned off in January. In the process, the need for the white space will be eliminated, a reality which has led to an epic brouhaha over what should be done with it.

The technology community — in particular Google, which has championed the cause, but also Dell, Motorola, and even Microsoft — have pushed to open the white space up for new wireless devices. Of particular interest is the possibility for long-distance wireless broadband, as the spectrum in question has a much longer range, along with the ability to permeate walls and other solid obstacles. The Ghosts of Broadcasts Past — the television networks — however, aren't so hot on the idea.

According to the TV lobbyists, allowing the white space to be used for wireless technology "imperils American's television reception" — even though it will be illegal to broadcast television in that spectrum. It will also apparently render wireless microphones completely useless, despite FCC-sponsored testing which disproved the interference claims. This particular concern was apparently so serious that the industry's most powerful voice on the issue — country singer and, apparently, noted radio-frequency engineer Dolly Parton — spoke up in opposition to the proposal.

Despite the opposition, the FCC's five commissioners — two Democrats, three Republicans — voted unanimously to allow the white space to be used for wireless technology. The decision comes with certain limitations, as do all FCC rulings, in particular: that the FCC Laboratory must test and certify all devices, as is the case for all wireless devices, that devices include sensory technology to determine if wireless microphones are being utilized in the area, and that the devices include geolocation technology, which will utilize a FCC database to locate and avoid interference with other devices.

The decision met an expected mixed reception, with technology advocates, including Google's Larry Page, hailing it as an advance for science, while broadcasters decried the move as a danger to all Americans. National Association of Broadcasters VP Dennis Wharton declared that "the commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television" — himself bypassing the fact that the FCC has been considering this proposal actively and publicly for six years. Google's Page raised the issue of network FUD: "For years the broadcasting lobby and others have tried to spread fear and confusion about this technology, rather than allow the FCC's engineers to simply do their work." He went on to say that he was "really gratified to see that the FCC decided to put science over politics."

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein had perhaps the best line, however, saying "Let's hope it's not just Wi-Fi on steroids but Wi-Fi on amphetamines." With projected speeds in the billions of bits per second, you just might get it, Johnny.
Justin Ryan is News Editor for LinuxJournal.com.
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