FCC approves rules allowing white-space devices

Change will allow broadband devices to operate in unused TV spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to approve rules that would allow new broadband devices to operate in unused television spectrum.

The FCC voted on the rules governing the operation of new devices in the so-called spectrum white spaces over the objections of television broadcasters, wireless microphone makers, several sports leagues, and dozens of performing artists and U.S. lawmakers. The vote will allow more broadband competition in the U.S., with wireless devices competing with providers of cable broadband and DSL/fiber-based broadband, said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

"Today’s decision is consequential to our nation’s future because wireless broadband has the potential to improve our economy and quality of life in even the remotest areas," Adelstein said. "One of the best options for promoting broadband and competition across the country, particularly in rural areas, is maximizing the potential of spectrum-based services."

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) had run a hard-fought campaign against the white-space proposal, saying two rounds of extensive testing by the FCC failed to prove that prototype broadband devices would avoid interfering with TV stations on neighboring channels.

The NAB promised to continue to fight against potential interference with TV stations. "While we appreciate the FCC's attempt to address significant issues raised by broadcasters and others, every American who values interference-free TV should be concerned by today's commission vote," said Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president. "By moving the white-space vote forward, the commission appears to have bypassed meaningful public or peer review in a proceeding of grave importance to the future of television."

The white spaces are empty channels on spectrum designated for use by television stations, but wireless microphones also broadcast on the spectrum without FCC licenses. All U.S. television markets have some white-space spectrum, and several tech companies and public interest groups have pushed the FCC to approve white-space devices in recent years.

The FCC agreed on some restrictions on white-space devices, which could be on the market in the next two years. In most cases, devices will have to include geolocation technology, which uses technologies such as GPS to match a white-space device's location against a preexisting database of spectrum users. In FCC tests this year, devices using spectrum-sensing technology, a real-time effort to sense existing spectrum users, encountered several problems, but a Motorola prototype device using geolocation correctly found all occupied channels, the FCC said.

Wireless microphone vendors, including Shure Inc., had also objected to white-space devices on interference grounds. But the FCC said microphone makers would be protected because facilities using wireless mics will be able to register with the geolocation database.

Makers of wireless broadband devices that don't include geolocation capabilities can also apply for FCC certification, but they will face a "much more rigorous" approval process, the FCC said in a press release. Those applications will be open for public comment before the FCC approves them.

The FCC will also act promptly to remove any devices that cause interference, the FCC said.

The FCC vote will "greatly complicate the lives of wireless microphone users across the United States and negatively affect tens of millions of Americans listening to live and broadcast events,” Mark Brunner, Shure’s senior director of global public and industry relations, said in a statement.

Several groups and companies, including Microsoft and the Information Technology Association of America, praised the FCC's decision. “This is a great order, a great start and a great day for innovation,” said Jake Ward, a spokesman for the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a group representing several large tech vendors and public interest groups.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who pushed for the white-space proposal, said the vote will allow many kinds of new technology, including enhanced home broadband networks and intelligent peer-to-peer devices.

"Opening the white spaces will allow for the creation of a Wi-Fi on steroids," he said. "It has the potential to improve wireless broadband connectivity and inspire an ever-widening array of new Internet-based products and services for consumers."

In other votes, the FCC on Tuesday approved Verizon Wireless' acquisition of rival Alltel, on the condition that Verizon sell off wireless equipment in 100 U.S. markets. The FCC also voted to allow, with conditions, the transfer of spectrum licenses held by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire to a company called New Clearwire.

New Clearwire wants to build a nationwide WiMax wireless broadband network.

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